Lyotard’s use of the word “postmodern” was somewhat capricious. The term was already much in use to denote a trend in art, literature, and architecture marked in part by a glib use of irony, a free and sometimes jarring use of allusions to and quotations of earlier forms, and a repudiation of the forms and aims of modernism, especially its high aestheticism. By using the word “postmodern” in his report, Lyotard was asserting a connection between this state of affairs that he was examining and that implied by the poststructuralist writing of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, which is that the narratives used to support Western culture and science are no longer credible.
Additionally, his laudatory use of the term “postmodern” was a rebuke to the work of Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist who had identified what he called “communicative action”—reasoned, unselfish discourse—as the key to completing what he considered to be the incomplete project of modernity, namely, the establishment of equitable social institutions along rational guidelines. The simple use of the term “postmodern” implied that pursuing the goals of modernity was perhaps an antiquated enterprise; an overreliance on rationality, in Lyotard’s thinking, always leads to a suppression of intuition and desire, the font of creativity. Habermas recognized the rebuff and responded in print, and indeed, the rest of Lyotard’s life was punctuated by intellectual sparring between the two philosophers.
However important the debate between Lyotard and Habermas was in shaping The Postmodern Condition, it had little to do with the work’s enthusiastic reception. Rather, because of its relative clarity and brevity and because it offered an intellectually rigorous attempt to explain what was meant by the term “postmodern,” which had been in vogue for some time, when the book was translated into English, it was widely received as a statement asserting the poststructuralist concepts behind postmodern artistic practices.