Jean Francois Lyotard

Topics: Postmodernism, Age of Enlightenment, Jean-François Lyotard Pages: 7 (1699 words) Published: May 14, 2012
“Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?”
By Jean-François Lyotard, trans. Régis Durand.

NOTE: Written in 1982, as postscript to The Postmodern Condition (1979)

A Demand

This is a “period of slackening” in the “color of the times”. “From every direction we are being urged to put an end to experimentation, in the arts and elsewhere”. Bauhaus (1919-1933 Germany: Walter Gropius founded this movement of artists, writers, architects. Shut down by Hitler for being very radical, left-wing) shut down to stop “functionalism” but this implies stopping experimentation too. People are looking for a language sans play, i.e. the language of the historian; looking to “restore a solid anchorage of language in the referent”. Refers to opinion that “postmodernism with its games and fantasies, carries very little weight in front of political authority”, and that postmodernism is even less relevant now because fear of nuclear attack has caused totalitarian surveillance.

Lyotard (L) then refers to Habermas’ (who is a Marxist) critique of the present age (and thus of post-modernity/post-modernism) in “Modernity: an Incomplete Project”.

Habermas (JH) believes neo-conservatism would thrive under the pretext of postmodernism. Neo-conservatives allow any practice to continue, saying cultural logic applies; thus giving room to even conservative practices (those which are anti-Enlightenment). L feels that, to say this will allow Stalinism to flourish (JH’s background) is a misreading of postmodernism. JH believes the Enlightenment project has failed: now we are looking for narrow experts, communication is nil. The Enlightenment project was that of Modernity, and everyone moving toward a common goal. In Aesthetic Modernism there resistance to a ‘WE’. That there is no ‘WE’, no one World View; there is a breakdown of society - individuals have disparate experiences. The “concrete individual” is presently (acc. to JH) experiencing “desublimated meaning” and “destructured form” (as in Woolf, Eliot) This is to JH not a “liberation” but an immense ennui in the sense that Baudelaire described over a century ago; laments the loss of totality of life. JH wants to regain a totality of life, to see life as a cohesive whole.

JH wants the arts and the experience of the arts to “bridge the gap between cognitive, ethical, and political discourses”, i.e. to create a “unity of experience”. (As opposed to Aesthetic Modernism and its tendency to detach itself from daily life, i.e. pure aestheticism only) (Habermas would like Brecht, who knew drama is drama, linked to literary tradition, but wrote participatory drama about daily-life issues. Lyotard would not like even this to become the norm.

L is not a Marxist in the narrow dogmatic sense, but is left-wing sympathetic.)

In other words, a communicative rationality (“communicative consensus”) should be the aim; postmodernism’s constant questioning never leads to any cohesiveness.

L wants to determine what is meant by “unity”. Whose unity? Whose conception of the whole? Postmodernism acc. to L severely reexamines Enlightenment ideals of a “unitary end of history and of a subject”. Grand narratives have to be abandoned; the Enlightenment ideal of history having a subject, a teleology, a goal - all is undercut by ‘postmodernism’ as L defines it. In fact postmodernism is that which undercuts these ideals, and this is a good thing, because it avoids a totalizing that would suppress radical/Other elements.

L says this has been initiated by Adorno, Wittgenstein and others already.


Capitalism has innate “power to derealize familiar objects, social roles, and institutions”. Thus, in the age of capitalism, so-called “realistic representations” can no longer evoke reality except as “nostalgia or mockery”. “Classicism seems to be ruled out in a world in which “reality is so destabilized”. (Btw L says Walter Benjamin takes this up.)

The mechanical and the industrial were the...
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