Study Guide

Jean-François Lyotard

Jean-François Lyotard Essay - Critical Essays

Lyotard, Jean-François

Introduction

Jean-François Lyotard 1924-1998

French philosopher.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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] (philosophy) 1986

L'Enthousiasme: la critique kantienne de l'histoire [Enthusiasm: the Kantian Critique of History] (philosophy) 1986

Peregrinations: Law, Event, Form (philosophy) 1988

L'Inhumain: causeries sur le temps [The Inhuman: Reflections on Time] (philosophy) 1988

Heidegger et “les juifs” [Heidegger and “the Jews”] (philosophy) 1988

La Guerre des Algériens [The Algerian War] (philosophy) 1989

The Lyotard Reader (philosophy) 1989

Leçons sur l'analytique du sublime [Lessons on the Analytic of Sublime] 1991

Lectures d'enfance [Lectures from Childhood] (philosophy) 1991

Moralités postmodernes [Postmodern Moralities] (philosophy) 1993

Signé Malraux [Signed Malraux] (philosophy) 1996

La Chambre sourde [The Deaf Chamber] (philosophy) 1998

La Confession d'Augustin (philosophy) 1999

Criticism

Marc Blanchard (essay date 1979)

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 strict deconstruction of Saussurean linguistics to a more flexible enterprise of weaving that deconstruction into the flow of his own first person writing is apparently of little importance. Of equally little importance seems the fact that this Gargantuan enterprise of deconstruction, which has been received here with so much fanfare, is itself all but disseminated, floated, as it were, into the overall philosophical escapism now gripping Paris. It is as if, once the great metacritical enthusiasm had begun to be experienced as yet another in a long series of dogmatic thrusts, the Derridean enterprise itself, in spite of its cautionary demonstrations, its admonitions, could only be felt as the last struggle for conceptual power: how to transcend, or rather, to supplement, the closure imposed by a Saussurean/Jakobsonian philosophy of linguistic universals.

But the argument could be taken one step further. If, as more recent Derridean publications like Glas and Eperons have shown, there is now in Derrida and in many others an attempt to work an empirical praxis from the theoretical considerations presented as a reflection on the history of Western philosophy, then any escape out of this closure should not lead us into another closure, where we would only justify our logocentricity, by simply taking down each and every piece of model-simulacrum erected in its name. Escaping closure can only come with a radical transformation of the idea of escape itself. The escape should be a real one, not a reworking of historical parts of knowledge, but also and first of all, an escape. That is to say, it should include a rejection of theory as the process which keeps us imprisoned in our modes of linguistic modelization. Baudrillard, whom Lyotard criticizes for holding on to an ideology of closure in his obsessive search for new theories, thus represents rather well the last cliff-hanger trick in an ideology which must now be left behind: “the only thing left to us is theoretical violence. Speculating to death with only one strategy: to radicalize all hypotheses. Even code, symbolic are still coverup terms—if only they could be withdrawn from our discourse one by one” [L'Echange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 13].

Lyotard then already. It is only appropriate that his name should have been introduced here, even before a discussion of his work had begun, since in his work he not only seeks to deny himself the privilege of a new theoretical posture, but he also fully rejects the mere possibility of any theory in general as well as the Cartesian-Saussurean trap of seeing only des choses claires et distinctes according to the dichotomy of a binary principle (black/white, I/you, here/there). In this sense also, any formal introduction to Lyotard's work where one attempts to deal, first, with the context of Post-Structuralism, only to restore later to the more frantic parts of Lyotard's discourse their logical and historical coherence, would appear to constitute just as much of a trap, because it requires that one elaborate a metatheoretical position from which to examine each and every move made by Lyotard to expose the prison-house of his language. To do justice then to the Economie libidinale would be to insist that it is a theoretical piece only malgré soi, in spite of itself: that is, if we insist that it be a testimony to the current Parisian impatience with dogmatic theory and the overreliance on the powers of conceptual language, it is, as such, representative of the general Post-Structuralist climate. But the appearance (not the Truth) is that Lyotard's piece advertizes itself as some sort of impossibility. It simply rejects, not only the possibility of any metacritical position, but also possibility itself as an expression of the will to structure with which we limit and shortchange our desire. To the objection that we do need signs to communicate and that our use of signs always standing in lieu of things makes the actualization of the libido contingent upon a conceptual game of possibilities, an alternation of presence and absence, the Economie libidinale responds in several oblique ways.

First, the book seeks to deny itself the privilege of serious philosophical knowledge. Attacking everyone by rejecting no specific position, it chooses the untenable posture of drift [dérive]. This drift is not in the form of a calculated distance from words, from signs, from appearances. It happens between levels of appearance: what Lyotard calls theatricalization. However, because he is fully aware that the posture of drift implies an origin, and even more certainly an end, and because the search for this origin and this end, inherent in the notion of any narrative, of any drifting, would eventually make it impossible for our desire simply to be there (that is, to continue being itself: unrestricted, unfinished and full of contradictions), Lyotard will not reject this theatricality. On the contrary, he will seek to bring it out for what it is: pure effect and fantasy. Better still, he will praise it and rejecting instead those who reject it, he will embark on his own narrative, treating History, and specifically the history of philosophy, as though they were the story of his own book.

The Economie libidinale thus presents itself as an act. It invites us to experience the pleasure that can be derived (drifted) from the creative practice of theatrics. The use of critical models is not absolutely banned and Lyotard insists that he too can use models, as he powerfully demonstrated earlier in Discours/Figures, when he used the Jakobsonian grille to show libidinal affects in the space opened by structural relations between linguistic functions: for example, the addresser/addressee relation; the code-message relation, where objects designated by our discourse are no longer linguistic objects, arbitrary, anonymous, but allow us the experience of meaning in a very specific, very personal mimesis. However, because using models implies using stable references (to a context, to a modelizing subject), the Economie seeks to appear as an invitation, if not a temptation, to fantasize the end of all overt or covert referencing practices. Indeed, if the need to use models and to structure is representative of our Western logocentricity, from Aristotle to Saussure to Derrida, this logocentricity cannot be broken so long as our desire to construct a critique of this representation is referred to, and signified by, a presence/absence of the subject responsible for this logocentricity. Lyotard's temptation then is to lure us into a fictional/critical narrative which, instead of rejecting structure and theory of structure as futile, uses structure to set the stage for the sweeping operation [balayage] of an anarchic, anonymous libido. That is to say, there must be no difference between critical and non-critical activity, between showing and telling; criticism is in itself an intensely libidinal activity in that it allows the subject to fantasize himself as both patient and agent of a text, while his discourse continues to maintain a barrier between the two:

confusion is inevitable because language is not an isolated sphere; because it belongs, in patches, to the same surface as these loins of golden gray moving under your palms and these cheeks cuddling the cluster of your balls. Scream communication, that is the assertion it seeks, language as an extension of the libido, revolving upon itself, into the area of meaning and order, to the Logos, which the Western world and above all the philosopher have always wanted to protect from the monstrousness of impious lovers and politicians. [p. 102]

Only if one stops referring mimesis to a theory underpinning mimesis can reference-interpretation cease (be it a reference to the Other or to the image of one's own vacuous Self), and with reference-interpretation, the illusion that one must or can always criticize, explain. Moreover, to show something means to subvert the mechanisms of semiotic communication in the sense that, if something happens in the moment of that showing, to us, to our body, to our mind, this something cannot be explained, separated from the mimetic process activating it by a critical (Hegel/Derrida) or even creative (Proust/Joyce) investigation of those mechanisms. It must be left alone; and if anything, it must be protected from our critical consciousness: dis-inserted, dis-inscribed from rational discourse in the hope that it can be experienced without mediation, as appearance or phenomenon.

However, it would be wrong to infer from this that the Lyotardian approach is a phenomenological one, since for Lyotard, as for Derrida, albeit not for the same reasons, phenomenology is basically a hoax in its attempt to give substance to the theatricality involved in the semiotic game. Thus, to the phenomenologist, the sign stands for something else, which I as a subject immediately recognize and make mine by temporalizing (Heidegger) the absence of the thing implied by the sign and thus bringing myself in thought or in fantasy to that point (the locus of the object, of the Other) which I do not occupy. The appearance of which Lyotard speaks and which he calls dissimulation is not a negative of Truth, in the Hegelian sense that to dispel all obscurities one needs only the clarifying power of sign-consciousness; it is produced by the fact that the object of desire, and with it and through it, the positive reality of drives [Triebe], is negated in the very moment the subject actualizes them through his sign-system. Why?—That is the question never to ask. Because to say why? is to replace ourselves within a framework of semiotic construction and deconstruction which can only ascribe to a representation standing for the Truth (God/the Spirit), that is to say properly standing for nothing, the work of an irreducible libido. Instead, Lyotard sees this work carried out in terms of the unlikely, almost absurd conjunction of two systems or two kinds of signs (for lack of better words): one which manifests libido by being a part of it and intensifying it and the other which works it over into interpretive sets, thus reducing it to a mere fragment, a possibility. For every part of our bodies, of our minds, of the world, that would enjoy the thrusts of a sign-free libido—one beyond the fragmentation of our linguistic universe—there would be a thousand others equally anxious to enjoy themselves. Not only do we seek to possess the body, the mind of others, but in our own body, we also experience the impossibility of total and absolute gratification: it is as if the mouth were jealous of the ear; the ear, of the eye, ad infinitum. The fear of such libidinal turmoil quite naturally induces the ordering compulsion we have and which Freud ascribed to Eros: the force that keeps us alive, out of the chaos and death of impossible revolutions, by always leading us into more love dances, by always effecting more maneuvers to mask all too powerful libidinal thrusts with the rhetoric of a strict rational order.

The fact is, Lyotard's dissimulation is not new. In another, more symbolic context, I would like to suggest that the same problematics is already present in literary texts working through a representation and an emblematics of Eros in classical and medieval literature. In the Hellenistic romance of Daphnis and Chloe, for instance, the lead story, explaining and covering all the others, that of Eros pursuing (shooting his darts) and being pursued (by all humans), remains the generator of an overall narrative constantly disconnecting and reconnecting what remains till the end of the romance but the mere possibility of a shared enjoyment between two theoretical outsiders: the shepherds Daphnis and Chloe longing for total pastoraldom in the midst of a world full of interdicts. There, the pastoral quest for a safe (external/theoretical) position is carried out by means of the juxtaposition of unrelated tales of masking and substitution, themselves reflected into other, older tales from mythology, and the success of the romance is predicated on the possibility for the two heroes to adopt and to retain their status as outsiders. In the context of the Economie libidinale, Eros' never-ending pursuit would symbolize the force of a complex of pain and pleasure which cannot be withstood on either side (the pursuer/the pursued) precisely because the gratification expected is so overwhelming that it can only come with Death itself. This complex is exactly what Lyotard wants us to approach: not in the Freudian context of a dichotomy between Love and Death, but in the context of what he terms the uncoiling of a section of the libidinal surface around us [un désenroulement de la bande libidinale] and which represents the locus of all pleasure and pain conjoined. An unbearable locus, since, owing to our incapacity to fulfill all our desires at once (say, for instance, love and hate, fully and entirely without compromise), we have no choice but to live under the law of repression. In a veritably seminal analysis of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Lyotard shows how Freud himself may have gone beyond what was later to be reduced to a simple opposition between two drives. The Freudian insight may have been that the metatheoretical division into two drives was necessary if we wanted to understand the pragmatic devices through which a person's psyche could eventually be returned to normalcy in the process of the cure. However, normalcy is but an expression of the fact that we must localize the world through semiotic forms which function metaphorically—in the very fact of their assignation: thus Freud assigns a positive (Eros) or negative sign to the libido—and metonymically—in the reference to an unconscious, albeit universal language in whose displacements the subject seeks refuge. Lyotard, for his part, suggests that this semiotization can be used to retrieve portions of desire obliterated in the coiling experience to avoid the potentially disastrous sweep of an unrestrained libido. And one of the ways to achieve this is to tap sign-systems for the intensity, not the structure, of their communication.

This is where the title Economie libidinale takes on its fullest meaning. That the human psyche attempts to regulate impulses it fears may take it over: nothing new in that. That this regulation allows only for a minimal part of the whole psychic process to reach our consciousness: nothing new in that either, as the Freudian delineation of regions and hierarchization of processes will show (the Unconscious appears as a vast terra incognita which the conscious mind penetrates only unwittingly and through the form of a dialogue with the Other). What is new, however, is the possibility that this regulation could now, through its own excesses, involve the whole energetic substratum (the libidinal surface) available through the individual; moreover, that it could be used to cause the deregulation of the regulating subject himself as an instance of power and launch an attack against all types of regulation, of interpretation: economic, religious, philosophical. Here, Lyotard uses Freud's analysis of Schreber's paranoia to show how the regulating system reconstructed by Freud on a principle already equivalent to that of Eros-containing-Death (a paranoiac reconstructs a world he must save, lest he die himself) is actually worked over by an overwhelming intensity (incandescence), as the body of the President is involved in blocking all impulses which it fears may take it over. In Schreber's case, almost unbeknownst to the subject, to the patient, the various bodily functions are enlisted to serve various, not to say, opposite libidinal purposes. The effect is sheer pain and terror. Thus, since the President fears both defecation (because his defecation might please Dr. Flechsig, for whom Schreber feels homosexual love) and penetration by the organ of God (because this penetration would be an admission that he, Schreber, cannot be like anybody else and that Flechsig is right in treating him like a patient), the name of Dr. Flechsig works as a perfect primer to detonate an enormous quantity of libido in all directions. Schreber is not himself either to others or to himself. He has become the occasion, the locus and perhaps, the sign, of an incredible coiling of the libidinal surface. The libido is manifested in so many ways that he feels crucified: his mouth, his mind and his hands are used to perform a rhetorical function by investing parts of his libido into the writing of the Denkwürdigkeiten; his penis is used in an unconscious manner with Flechsig; his anus, to the same purpose, only the reverse; his supposedly castrated penis-vagina is ready to receive God's penis; to which must be added the innumerable references to other parts of his feminine body, helping him ensure the sweep of as many sections of the libidinal surface as possible. On the one hand, he is the occasion of an unbelievable repression designed to obviate an all-out libidinal satisfaction, and on the other hand, he is fully enjoying the chaos of this neurotic orgy: “and thus it is the supposed boundary of Schreber's body which finds itself violated by the name of Flechsig […] this boundary is itself pulverized by a dizzying vertigo; the President's body is being undone and parts of it are being projected through libidinal space by getting mixed with other parts into an inextricable patchwork” [pp. 74-76]. Now one could give a simple, semiotic account of this passage by saying that the sign (here, the name of Flechsig) has not only been referring to something or someone else real (the Doctor), but that it has also been connoting its reference in a symbolic way (the Doctor is now Schreber's Tormentor). But this would be to forget that denotation and connotation are one and the same thing, that it is not possible to distinguish between them. They are hopelessly intricated: the sign regulating the symbol, and the symbol deregulating the sign, just as the Tormentor lurks beneath the Doctor. Taking a cue from the President, Lyotard suggests to us that now is the time to avail ourselves of this confusion—this dissimulation—to revel in it, to help spread it, so that we may with it experience more libido, more passion.

Here, Lyotard's philosophy of confusion and weakness of the sign must be understood in both a philosophical and a historical context....

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Alphonso Lingis (essay date 1979)

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,...

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Seyla Benhabib (essay date 1984)

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...

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Peter Dews (essay date 1984)

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...

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Cecile Lindsay (essay date 1984)

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

1.

Near the...

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George Van Den Abbeele (essay date 1984)

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...

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Mark Conroy (essay date 1985)

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...

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Kate Linker (essay date 1985)

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...

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Herman Rappaport (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 2131 words.)

John Keane (essay date 1987)

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...

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David Ingram (essay date 1988)

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

Walter Benjamin

The past decade has witnessed an...

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John Leo (essay date 1988)

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.]

I

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,...

(The entire section is 4693 words.)

Ronald Bogue (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Avital Ronell (essay date 1989)

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.”]

1.

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...

(The entire section is 6736 words.)

Kevin Paul Geiman (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5813 words.)

Todd G. May (essay date 1990)

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,...

(The entire section is 5859 words.)

Gayle L. Ormiston (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1261 words.)

Alexander Weber (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 4084 words.)

Julian Pefanis (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 10814 words.)

John Rajchman (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 4860 words.)

Robert John Sheffler Manning (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Betty McGraw (essay date 1992)

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 entire section is 6305 words.)

Susan E. Shapiro (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 9691 words.)

Anne Tomiche (essay date 1994)

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” [12]. 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...

(The entire section is 12116 words.)

Kevin Porter (essay date 1996)

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”...

(The entire section is 8562 words.)