Jean-François Lyotard Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.