Jean-François Lyotard

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What does Jean-François Lyotard say in his essay “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?”

In “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Lyotard explains that postmodernism is connected to modernism since “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern.” He also critiques ideologies of totality and argues that we should “wage a war on totality” and “be witnesses to the unpresentable.”

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In his essay “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?” Jean-François Lyotard says that postmodernism and modernism are connected. He opens the essay by discussing perspectives on modernity, like that of Jurgen Habermas, who thinks that modernity has failed because it has splintered culture. According to Lyotard, Habermas argues that to address this issue there must be a sense of unity between cultural discourses in order to create a unity of experience. Lyotard responds to this by questioning the sort of unity Habermas is referring to.

Lyotard then moves to define the postmodern in his own way. His main argument is that the postmodern “is undoubtedly a part of the modern.” He explains that work that is considered postmodern is always reacting to the work of the generation before it and as a result “a work can become modern only if it first postmodern.” To depict this he provides several examples, like how the artist Paul Cézanne was challenging the Impressionists’ space and that later, the artist Pablo Picasso was attacking Cezanne’s. Thus, the modern and postmodern exist together in a constant repetitive state, and postmodernism seeks out that which is unpresentable in modernism.

Lyotard stresses the importance of exploring the unpresentable and articulates a postmodernism critique of totalizing metanarratives. He famously states:

Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.

Ultimately, Lyotard’s argument opposes Harbermas’s. Lyotard suggests that Harbermas’s quest for unity validates totalizing narratives that overlook the complexities of true experience.

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