Jean-François Lyotard

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Article abstract: Writing on philosophy, politics, and aesthetics, Lyotard made the link between postmodernism and poststructuralism, engaged the problems of psychoanalysis, Marxism, and deconstruction, and examined the way society legitimizes knowledge and discourse.

Early Life

Jean-François Lyotard was an intellectual committed to political action whose life’s work in philosophy emerged slowly. He was a secondary school teacher in French Algeria from 1950 to 1952 before the start of the Algerian war for national liberation, a cause he actively and publicly supported. In 1954, he published his first book, Phenomenology, a work heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. In this book, Lyotard defined the intellectual’s role as that of understanding history in terms made available through phenomenology. Subsequently, his politics became increasingly radical, and he adopted an anti-Soviet form of Marxism. From 1954 to 1964, he was a member of the editorial board of Socialisme ou Barbarisme, a Marxist periodical that was critical of the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. During this time, he also contributed articles to the periodical Pouvoir ouvrier (worker power). His antagonism to authoritarianism led him to join an intellectual movement that in May, 1968, expressed its sympathies with the student and worker riots that shook French life; many of the student organizers of these riots were students of Lyotard, who was working as a lecturer at Nanterre University at that point.

Life’s Work

Lyotard began the work for which he is best known with the publication of his doctoral dissertation, Discours, figure (conscious and unconscious communication). In the dissertation, Lyotard rejects the structuralism that had dominated French thought in the 1960’s and relies on Sigmund Freud’s distinction between the conscious and the unconscious to distinguish between the conscious element of communication (discourse) and the unconscious (figure), the latter of which he, following Freud, associates with desire and libido. In contrast to the structuralism of the day, which focused on the form of a work of art, Lyotard argued that on the figural level, art communicates the disruptive force of desires. The work of Paul Cézanne, for instance, overturns the power of representation in favor of unleashing figures associated with feelings and desire. Thus, in an argument that Lyotard would continue in his far more difficult and less well received 1974 work, Libidinal Economy, art is valued for its ability to release desire. This later book puts this aesthetic notion to work in the realm of politics, where Lyotard finds the disruptive traces of libidinal drives, whose power to disrupt any dogma show the limits of Marxist, or any, totalizing theory.

A theoretical problem that inevitably occurs in the absence of a totalizing theory is the problem of judgment. Without a single, clear frame of reference, how can art or actions that proceed from different assumptions be judged good or bad? Although Discours, figure and Libidinal Economy are both more interested in unleashing the energy of the libido and of art than they are in making precise judgments, it is exactly this question of judgment to which Lyotard would turn his attention in his later work and which would make for his most lasting contribution to philosophy.

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge defines the postmodern as a state marked by an unwillingness to accept any grand narratives. The overarching narratives that have been used to justify science and the arts—for instance, the belief that technology will lead to a better life for all, or that the history of civilization is the history of the march toward enlightenment—are met with incredulity instead of firm belief. Thus, Lyotard believed those in the generation...

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following World War II were living through an age of a legitimation crisis—one in which there was no single narrative, no mutually understood common goal, by which society could justify its actions.

It is society’s lack of a standard for satisfying the fundamental disputes that Lyotard faces in the work that may be his most important contribution to philosophy, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. The term différend is used by Lyotard to mean disputes that defy litigation within any set of rules because they are disputes that arise from the irreconcilable difference between sets of rules. For an example of what Lyotard means, contrast an American Indian claim to land based on centuries of tribal care of that land and of its use as a burial ground with a mining interest’s claim to that land based on deeds and federal laws. Because different forms of legitimation are involved in each claim, there cannot be one “court” equally suited to evaluating each claim (indeed, the notion of a court already entails certain presuppositions about how such a dispute is to be handled).

Lyotard’s catch-all term for thought, speech, artistic and political events is “phrases,” a word he uses to emphasize the primacy of the individual event over any given context. For instance, the phrase “I can come over to your house later” can be given any number of meanings (or “linkages” in Lyotard’s terminology), but fundamentally it exists to be interpreted. Thus, the différend is, in the words of his book’s subtitle, a “phrase in dispute,” but one in which the conflict is not resolvable by deference to any higher-order organizing principle. Among his examples of how such disputes arise, Lyotard imagines a laborer trying to claim to an arbitrator that his hours of work are not a commodity that he owns but hours of his life. It would not be received as a relevant argument; labor-capital relations are premised on the assumption that the laborer sells work as a commodity, and disputes are arbitrated on the same assumption. Thus, the laborer who voices such a dispute is silenced by the arbitration process that cannot “hear” him.

Similarly, and more powerfully, Lyotard writes at length about remembering the Holocaust. Survivors of the Nazi Germany death camps are faced with the burden of knowing that the horror of Auschwitz and similar camps exceeds the power of words or language to convey it. Thus, to speak about it is to give a false impression—the impression that it can be understood by those who have not lived through it, that it is imaginable. However, not to speak about it allows the experience to be forgotten or distorted. This produces a conflict: No system of interpretation exists that can accurately understand the testimony (or silence) of Holocaust survivors, but Holocaust survivors must nonetheless speak and therefore further the misinterpretation of the Holocaust while trying to further the interpretation of it.

Lyotard’s response to this dilemma is to advocate a return to reading not as a process of extracting correct interpretations out of texts but as a process of sensitively reexamining that which we think we know. Just as an avant-garde artist such as novelist James Joyce or composer Arnold Schoenberg creates a sublime work of art that defies any contemporary standards of beauty, so a reader (as an interpreter of culture) can recognize the outbursts of pleasure or displeasure that indicate that our frame of interpretation is inadequate to understanding the “phrases” at hand. Lyotard’s challenge, then, is to achieve an aesthetics and a political ethics based on rumination, not with the goal of achieving a perfect frame of reference but as an obligation to what has been forgotten or ignored or overlooked.

Among Lyotard’s most interesting attempts to develop his concept of the différend was his book Heidegger and “the Jews,” written as his contribution to the question of how European thinkers who are indebted to Heidegger should address his infamous association with the Nazi Party and his refusal to completely condemn this association. Although Lyotard’s evaluation of Heidegger seems to be somewhat harsher than that of some of his contemporaries, including Jacques Derrida, he is less interested in defending or attacking Heidegger than in analyzing the dispute as irresolvable by any single court of opinion; that is, he sees it as a différend. This approach opened him to charges of intellectual obscurantism because he was analyzing a politically provocative issue in terms unfathomable to any but his closest readers.


Among the French philosophers of modernism and poststructuralism who became prominent following the 1968 student uprisings—Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray, among others—Lyotard can fairly be said to be the one most concerned with justice. In relating poststructuralism to postmodernism (which had developed as theoretical and artistic movements, respectively, with little relation to one another), he called attention to the political importance of each. After Lyotard, it became clear that postmodernism’s tendency to shake off the grand narratives of the past was a historically conditioned example of the free play of language exposed by Derrida. Lyotard, however, went a little further, demanding a politics based on the inclusion of the free play that always escapes the totalizing politics of rabid Marxism or dogmatic capitalism.

Additional Reading

Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1988. The first influential book-length study of Jean-François Lyotard’s work. It is a necessary commentary for those interested in studying Lyotard in depth.

Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Present. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1989. Though not an intensive analysis of Lyotard, this introduction to postmodernism does have an excellent discussion of The Postmodern Condition and might be a better starting point than any of the books focused on Lyotard.

Rachjman, John. “Presence of Mind.” Artforum 37, no. 1 (September, 1998): 27-41. A personal reminiscence published shortly after Lyotard’s death that does an excellent job of summarizing some of the philosopher’s more important beliefs, especially as relating to art and to technology.

Readings, Bill. Introducing Lyotard. New York: Routledge, 1991. Though too difficult to serve as an introduction to the philosopher, this volume is a worthwhile and serious study of Lyotard’s work.

Rojek, Chris, and Bryan S. Turner, eds. The Politics of Jean-François Lyotard. New York: Routledge, 1998. Leading authorities in cultural and philosophical studies attempt to answer the numerous questions still being asked about Lyotard.

Sim, Stuart. Jean-François Lyotard. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996. A worthwhile introduction to Lyotard. Includes a bibliography and index.

Williams, James. Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy. Malden, Mass.: Polity, 1998. A succinct, keen, and well-researched introduction to Lyotard.


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