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Lyotard was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie, a political organisation formed in France in 1948 around a view of the inadequacy of the Trotskyist analysis of the new forms of domination in the Soviet Union. Socialisme ou Barbarie became increasingly anti-Marxist and Lyotard was prominent in the Pouvoir Ouvrier group who rejected that position and split in 1963. Later he became a founding member of the European Graduate School.
The collapse of the "Grand Narrative"
Lyotard's work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, meta-narratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the 'universalist' claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims. Most famously, in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), he argued that our age (the postmodern condition of the book's title) is marked by an 'incredulity towards metanarratives'. These metanarratives - sometimes 'grand narratives' - are grand large scale theories and philosophies of the world: history as progress, the knowability of everything by science, the possibility of absolute freedom, etc. Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that these kinds of beliefs are adequate to represent and contain us all. We are much more alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micronarratives. For this concept he is drawing on the notion of the 'language game' to be found in the work of Wittgenstein, though strongly reinterpreted.
In Lyotard's work the term, sometimes also called 'phrase regimens', denotes the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their ciruclation are created.
This becomes more crucial in Au juste: Conversations (Just Gaming) (1979) and Le Différend (The Differend) (1983) which develop a postmodern theory of justice. It might appear that the atomisation of human beings implied by the notion of the micronarrative and the language game suggests a collapse of ethics. It has often been thought that universality is a condition for something to be a properly ethical statement: 'thou shall not steal' is an ethical statement in a way that 'thou shall not steal from Margaret' is not. The latter is too particular to be an ethical statement (what's so special about Margaret?); it is only ethical if it rests on a universal statement (such as the former: 'thou shall not steal'). But universals are impermissible in a world that has lost faith in metanarratives and so it would seem that ethics is impossible. Justice and injustice can only be terms within language games, and the universality of ethics is out of the window. Lyotard argues that notions of justice and injustice do in fact remain in postmodernism. The new definition of injustice is indeed to use the language rules from one 'phrase regimen' and apply it to another. Ethical behaviour is about remaining alert precisely to the threat of this injustice, of paying attention to things in their particularity and not to enclose them within abstract conceptuality. One must bear witness to the 'differend'.
This may seem rather abstract though it can be (and has been) applied to thinking through colonial and imperial powers and the ways they impose a new system and definition of justice on another. One might say the same within particular cultures, in which, as Lyotard might put it, the cultural diversity that we often celebrate, is evidence of proliferating micronarratives that rule the metanarrative of justice out of court (pardon the pun). Such issues seem particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities (among others) of 11 September 2001 in New York, 11 March 2004 in Madrid, and 7 July 2005 in London. Is it just to impose one definition of freedom and justice on all our citizens?
Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. (It is worth commenting that Lyotard saw 'postmodernism' as a latent tendency within thought throughout time and not a narrowly-limited historical period.) He favoured the startling and perplexing works of the high modernist avant-garde. In them he found a demonstration of the limits of our conceptuality, a valuable lesson for anyone too imbued with Enlightenment confidence.
He developed these themes in particular by discussing the 'sublime'. The sublime is a term in aesthetics whose fortunes revived under postmodernism after a century or more of neglect. It refers to the experience of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting wild and threatening sights like, for example, a massive craggy mountain, black against the sky, looming terrifyingly in our vision.
Lyotard found particularly interesting the explanation of the sublime offered by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (sometimes Critique of the Power of Judgment). In this book Kant explains this mixture of anxiety and pleasure in the following terms: there are two kinds of 'sublime' experience. In the 'mathematical' sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. It is simply incalculably large. It outstrips our usual means of seeing it. In the 'dynamical' sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than us, whose weight, force, scale could crush us without the remotest hope of our being able to resist it. (Kant stresses that if we are in actual danger, our feeling of anxiety is very different from that of a sublime feeling. The sublime is an aesthetic experience, not a practical feeling of personal danger.) This explains the feeling of anxiety.
The feeling of pleasure comes when human reason asserts itself. What is deeply unsettling about the mathematical sublime is that the mental faculties that present visual perceptions to the mind are inadequate to the concept corresponding to it; in other words, what we are able to make ourselves see cannot fully match up to what we know is there. We know it's a mountain but we cannot take the whole thing into our perception. What this does, ironically, is to compel our awareness of the supremacy of the human reason. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can take in the infinite. With the dynamical sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and (in Kant's terms) noumenal beings as well. The body may be crushed but our reason need not be. This explains, in both cases, why the sublime is an experience of pleasure as well as pain.
Lyotard is fascinated by this admission, from one of the philosophical architects of the Enlightenment, that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally. Some objects are simply incapable of being brought neatly under concepts. For Lyotard, in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, but drawing on his argument in The Differend, this is a good thing. Such generalities as 'concepts' fail to pay proper attention to the particularity of things. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we realise the inadequacy of the imagination and reason to each other. What we are witnessing, says Lyotard, is actually the differend; the straining of the mind at the edges of itself and at the edges of its conceptuality.
Lyotard's ideas have often been criticized. His theories can seem self-contradictory. The Postmodern Condition seems to offer a pretty grand narrative in its story of the decline of the metanarrative. Similarly, one is entitled to ask, in respect of The Differend, from which 'phrase regimen' does the term 'phrase regimen' come from, and why is it being used to describe them all? On what principle does the injustice of the 'differend' rest, given that it seems to be prior to and to describe relations between all phrase regimes. Such a position would seem to be that of a metanarrative which the book has surely ruled out? In his analysis of the sublime he appropriates Kant very loosely, ignoring the crucial second half of the experience of the sublime, the pleasurable recognition of reason's universality, which, of course, Lyotard will not accept.
Later life and death
Lyotard returned repeatedly to the notion of the Postmodern, in essays gathered in English as The Postmodern Explained to Children, Toward the Postmodern, and Postmodern Fables. He was preparing for a conference on Postmodernism and Media Theory when he died, suddenly, from leukemia, in 1998. On his passing, Lyotard was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
- Jean-Francois Lyotard European Graduate School
- The Post Modern Condition (The first 5 chapters)
- Post-modern Philosophical Martyrdom
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