The Postmodern Condition

by Jean-François Lyotard

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Shortly after the publication of Économie libidinale (1974; Libidinal Economy, 1993), Jean-François Lyotard began work on what would become Le Différend (1983; The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, 1988). The earlier work maintained that any totalizing system was necessarily based on repression of the libido; the latter would reaffirm this earlier position but also begin to posit a way back, one that allowed for careful, nonsystematic reading that would be sensitive to what its tools of interpretation could not understand. In the process of writing this work, he was asked by the Conseil des Universités of Quebec to produce of report on the state of knowledge in the Western world. The result was The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.


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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.


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Lyotard begins The Postmodern Condition by pointing out how the field of knowledge has changed in the years since World War II. No field has grown faster than computer science and its corollary fields. Indeed, whole new sciences have been created that are devoted to the speedy transmission of knowledge. Therefore, Lyotard maintains, knowledge has come to be valued less for its own inherent worth than for its utility. Knowledge has an exchange value; it is worth something. In the words of Marxist analysis, one might say it has been commodified. The measure of knowledge is no longer “Is it true?” but instead “What is its value?” Thus, knowledge is treated as a form of wealth, something of monetary value, an association that is very widely understood because knowledge is indeed key to building wealth in the corporate world. Further, the success of such scientifically created knowledge appears to legitimize the forms of society that created it. Without such legitimation, a legislator has no...

(This entire section contains 659 words.)

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authority to pass laws that will be accepted as the norm. Technological prowess serves as a concrete example of social prowess and allows the legislator to demonstrate in concrete terms that the contemporary, scientifically advanced society is working well.

However, scientific advances are not the only ways that societies assure themselves of their own legitimacy. Science, Lyotard claims, has always existed side by side with narrative legitimation; societies have also always authorized themselves through narrative, a form of legitimation next to which science has always rested somewhat uneasily. As an anthropological example of legitimation through narrative, he refers to the storytellers of the Cashinua Indians of South America, who begin their stories with their group’s name, thereby affirming their right to speak as Cashinuas. The rhythmic form of the narrative, consisting of “interminable monotonous chants,” reduces the listener’s awareness of ordinary time and brings the listener into fuller and unwary participation in the narrative. The listener is initiated (and reinitiated) into the tribe through narrative. The goal of the narrative is to bring the listener into harmony with the values and aims of the tribe.

Though this example may seem very specialized to the Cashinua, what Lyotard wishes the reader to see is that this is the way that mythology and mythological epics—such as Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616)—have been used by Western society. These also are unifying narratives. However, since the beginning of the modern period, starting in the late seventeenth century, we have been living in a society legitimated by metanarratives that tell us that society is moving toward greater emancipation and rationality, and scientific progress is the hallmark of both. We are assured that scientific advances will increasingly liberate us from degrading labor to free ever more of our time and, further, that the light of rationality will dispel the darkness of myth under which our ancestors labored. In the metanarrative of the Enlightenment, knowledge emerges as the hero who will usher in a new golden age of humanity.

When it comes to explaining exactly what caused this narrative to lose credibility, Lyotard is vague. He talks about late nineteenth century nihilism but offers as his most compelling argument the proposition that scientific knowledge, to legitimize itself, must do so scientifically. To legitimize itself in terms of a nonscientific narrative of the life of the human spirit necessarily delegitimizes it by embracing a nonscientific hypothesis; to eschew that path is to renounce the Enlightenment’s universalizing metanarrative of the progress of humanity through scientific knowledge. This is an interesting philosophic argument, one that Lyotard attributes to the late nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, but why this argument should have waited a century to have made its importance felt is a question Lyotard avoids in this work, although some of his later writings argue that the ovens of the Holocaust made the presentation of technology as the servant of human liberation an untenable narrative.

Postmodern Society

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This leads us to the postmodern period, a period marked by what Lyotard calls “incredulity” toward metanarratives. Narratives that claim to announce the truth for all people for all time have no credibility. If science has no standing as a good in itself, if it is not the tool for the liberation of all people, then the only credible goal for research shifts from finding what is true to finding what is useful—what knowledge will help the financial backers of research accumulate power and wealth? This further leads to the state into which he indicates that Western universities have fallen, in which the goal of the university shifts from an inquiry into values to the dissemination of predetermined skills that are useful to industry. Industrial society needs many computer scientists, teachers, and doctors; it does not need an untethered search for truth.

Thus painted, the picture of postmodern society (a picture that is deeply indebted to the writings of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer on the developments of capitalism in industrialized society) seems remarkably dreary. However, for Lyotard, all is not gloom. He sees positive developments in what he calls postmodern science: fractal geometry, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, and other fields of science that challenge a totalizing worldview. Drawing on the theories of Paul K. Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn, he argues that in fact postmodern science develops not along a consistent set of mutually agreed on principles but along separate and constantly shifting principles. Science no longer tells a unified story; molecular chemists, astrophysicists, and subatomic theorists see different “truths” that are fundamentally incommensurable with one another. The postmodern scientist is the author not of the grand narrative, but of the little narrative, a project Lyotard implies will be the cultural work of the postmodern condition.

Some Answers

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Appended to the English-language edition of The Postmodern Condition was a short essay, “What Is Postmodernism?,” which dealt with the issue of postmodernism more directly as it related to aesthetic (as opposed to scientific) culture, the realm in which the term “postmodern” had achieved its greatest prominence. This essay is important in that it asserts a direct connection between modernism and postmodernism and because it can provide some insight into the paradox Lyotard creates for himself in The Postmodern Condition. The postmodern, he asserts, “is undoubtedly a part of the modern,” not at its end “but in its nascent state.”

Using examples from art, he points out that among the great modernist painters, Paul Cézanne attacked the Impressionists, Pablo Picasso challenged Cézanne, and Marcel Duchamp challenged the very notion of art. Modernism he understands as the art that tries to make visible something that is unpresentable. Artists such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust will each find different ways to attempt to make visible that in life that cannot be made visible. The implicit project of bringing to visibility something that is not visible implies a deep metanarrative of progress. However, the incredulity toward any preexisting metanarrative also marks these modernists as postmodern. However unhelpful this blurring of distinct terms might be to those attempting a taxonomy of artistic movements, it is helpful in positing a connection between modernism and postmodernism that is alive and ongoing.

This essay also comments on the main text. The stance Lyotard is taking in The Postmodern Condition is that he is trying to make something visible that he believes to be invisible; even if it cannot be made visible, his attempts to do so show him to be a conscientious modernist, a stance he shifts in his decidedly more postmodern The Differend. Because of its lively tone and free use of cultural references, this essay, like this book itself, has been widely quoted and cited, but one cannot say that it has been widely understood.


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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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