French post-structuralist philosopher, best known for his highly influential formulation of postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition. Despite its popularity, however, this book is in fact one of his more minor works. For Lyotard, this fact has a deep political import, since politics claims to be based on accurate representations of reality. Lyotard deals with these common themes in a highly original way, and his work exceeds many popular conceptions of postmodernism in its depth, imagination, and rigor. His thought remains pivotal in contemporary debates surrounding philosophy, politics, social theory, cultural studies, art and aesthetics. His father, Jean-Pierre Lyotard, was a sales representative.
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Hence both progressive and conservative political views are found flailing in diagnosing the problems of the political, especially when facing the devaluation of all values in consumer culture. Lyotard produced an M. Lyotard came to Algeria at a propitious time: near start of the Algerian revolution that would ultimately liberate the country from France in , the colony had a revolutionary air that he inhaled in full.
After his arrival, Lyotard immersed himself in the works of Marx while updating himself on the Algerian situation. As the revolution began in , Lyotard joined Socialisme ou Barbarie Socialism or Barbarism , which also included Claude Lefort — and Cornelius Castoriadis — , important political thinkers in their own right. Lyotard became an astute and strident political militant over the next fifteen years, writing works that would later be collected in Political Writings Around the same time, he began to attend the seminars of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan — This was an important moment as Lyotard lost faith in the all-encompassing philosophy of Marxism, which offered, especially in the variant of the French Communist Party, a single key to history and its end.
This work remains an important thinking of immanence and what a body politic would be like if reduced only to its libidinal pleasures and the blockages that make institutions possible. That Lyotard would later repudiate this difficult and complex work should say much to those who would reduce him to advocating a postmodern pastiche where any pleasure is good as long as it provides some intensity of feeling. In , he would publish The Postmodern Condition , which was instantly taken as emblematic of what was underway in the West, right or wrong.
In and , he published Au juste translated as Just Gaming and The Differend , respectively, two works that remain important to anyone thinking a postmodern politics. In April , Lyotard died of leukemia in Paris. His writings would encounter the dominant Marxism of the French political and academic milieu, while also, over a long career, he would debate with writers in existential phenomenology, structuralism, and eventually post-structuralism, the latter being the moniker under which his works are commonly placed.
What is the social for the sociologist? For Lyotard, these questions cannot be answered from within these sciences themselves. Unlike Sartre, Lyotard does not seek a dialectical fusion of freedom, as found in existentialism, and necessity, as found in the objective laws found in the various sciences. For structuralism, as it would come to define itself over the next fifteen years in works by Lacan and Claude Levi-Strauss — , among others, the human subject is largely the effect of discursive grammars in which it is produced.
Nevertheless, Lyotard judged phenomenology to be ultimately reactionary, unable to respond to the ways in which the economic relations of production produce given conscious states, that is, how subjectivity is founded in objectivity. Marxism, Lyotard believed, failed to account for the desire that pushed those very students into the streets in the first place. Structuralism, for its part, Lyotard averred, was ultimately too intellectualist to account for the sensuous and figural gestures that were very much a part of the anarchical May events.
This would result in Discourse, Figure This put him at odds with the dominant structuralist and post-structuralist emphasis on language, and as the s began and disappointment set in that May gave rise to little in terms of substantive change, Lyotard, like others, looked to aesthetics and sensuous relations for their revolutionary potential.
This led him to his strongest denunciation of Marxism yet in Libidinal Economy Nevertheless, while he remained a man of his time—always responding and making advances in the dominant schools of French thought through which he lived—his work continues to speak to those influenced by those fields, as well as new movements in Continental realisms, aesthetics, and posthumanism.
Yet, like Julia Kristeva — , who developed in well-known articles leading to The Revolution in Poetic Language the distinction between the semiotic the libidinal disruptiveness of bodily motility and the symbolic the structured grammar whose extreme form is mathematics that together make language possible, Lyotard was interested in what escapes discourse but yet needs it to exist, just as there is no pure semiotic or symbolic language for Kristeva. In Discourse, Figure , Lyotard differentiates discourse, that is, the written text investigated by semiotics and structuralism, and the figural, that is, the visual, which he discusses through the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty.
The figural is the disruptive force that is irreducible to any systemic or linguistic approach to language. For this reason, Lyotard valorizes the eye and its modes of seeing figures—shadings of meanings—that cannot be reduced to a single meaning or representation. The figural is what makes it impossible to collapse language into pure signification, what Kristeva would dub the symbolic, and this makes changes in language possible, as seen in poetry and literature. Lyotard follows Friedrich Nietzsche — in arguing that there is no objective science or forms of knowledge that are not based in a desire or what Nietzsche called a will for power, a point that Lyotard will make by looking at the desire or libido behind the so-called scientific works of the later Marx.
Libidinal Economy is not an easy read, not least since it does not wish to set itself up as merely another philosophical theory hiding its own desires, with a truth easily representable to others Libidinal , While Freud largely discussed the libido at the individual level as a form of energy circulating within the body and necessitating societal laws that led to the formation of an internal superego keeping these energies in check, Lyotard greatly extends the idea of the libido to think of political economy as really a libidinal economy.
In sum, he looks to any stable formations within society as libidinal fields, whether we are discussing linguistics, economics, or architecture. The mutations caused by the libidinal economy are events. The libido itself, its energetics, is never representable or containable within any given system; all desires are dissimulated in these institutions, and they are never presentable as they are in themselves.
This is quite similar to what Deleuze and Guattari discuss in terms of organisms and and the body without organs in Anti-Oedipus two years earlier, and both texts are often read as encouraging these flows of energy, that is, the creation of the highest intensities, over forms of organization that tamp down these events.
For this reason, both books will be critiqued as being irresponsibly anarchist. For Lyotard, structures and institutions tend to totalize and exploit intensities for their own good, and thus lay claim to all proper interpretations of these intensities. But where Deleuze and Guattari differentiate fascistic and liberating forms of desire, Lyotard argues it is impossible to do so.
Hence, for example, he will say that capitalism is a liberating form of libidinal economy, since it overthrows all manner of institutions in the name of the accumulation of more and more money. Against Marx, he argues that our innate desires are not alienated in capitalism, but rather that capitalism is another means for the death drive to demolish those entities in its way, such as when capitalist expansion undoes traditional values and previous forms of economics.
And just as in capitalism, where it matters not what goods are in circulation as long as there is an accumulation of capital, desires are neutral as to their locale.
Indeed, later in interviews he will argue for at least passing through capitalism for those facing economic hardship. But this leaves, then, open a question that haunts other similar projects of the time: if each intensity is not to be thought outside of itself in terms of some representation or measure, then what ethics is available when all intensities are only to be thought in terms of their inherent efficacy?
As the s progressed, Lyotard moved towards considerations of justice that could discern among different regimes of intensities, but only once we acknowledge the changes in the era in which we live. He writes:. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse … making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth … I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.
Postmodern Condition , xxiii—xxiv. This is the overarching theme of the book, which also takes up the crisis of legitimation in the sciences, which often must use extra-scientific narratives to attempt to place themselves above other kinds of narration the arts, novels, philosophy, and so forth as the final arbiter of truth, and hence is one of the last metanarratives of modernity. The problem, Lyotard argues, is that the sciences face two crises: one of representation, that is, that it cannot be held naively that its models present to human subjects an accurate view of the objective world, instead of paradigms in which only certain views of the world fit and which, within a few years, can be completely overturned.
Like any other particular kind of knowledge, e. In this way, the gaining of scientific knowledge is not an end in itself, in but is in service ultimately to economic motives that will make certain processes more efficient and others redundant. This computerization of knowledge has not just sped up how knowledge is transferred, but what we think knowledge is, especially as the sciences are put almost wholly in service of supplying patents and know-how for corporations.
Lyotard avers that the old model of the learning of knowledge as a means for making citizens and free agents of individuals is falling away as knowledge is exteriorized from any particular individual knowers, and what is considered knowledge will only be that which can be translated into computerizable language.
Universities, then, will soon give up their roles in providing training what the Germans call Bildung , instead preparing their students for becoming managers and creating these packets of information. No doubt, Lyotard was not the only one to see these changes coming, but his prescience is notable nonetheless. At the same time, since multinational corporations are best suited to commodify information at vast scales, the nation-state will lose its central political place and indeed purposely abdicate its role in managing national economies.
This reduction of knowledge to that which is easily translatable and understandable, of course, is what drives globalization, and the leading economies, as Lyotard notes, will not be those engaged in manufacturing traditional commodities but instead those created and utilized through modern computing. Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major—perhaps the major—stake in the worldwide competition for power.
Postmodern Condition , 5. One need only see the decimation of the U. But these changes have another effect as well: these centers adjudicate what knowledge is, and one need only witness often fruitless attempts by humanities departments to prove themselves valuable to employers in the digital economy as evidence of this. That which is taken to be real and most natural is the formation of knowledge in terms understandable by capitalist economics and its modes of efficiency.
Lyotard, then, argues for forms of avant-gardism that seek what is unpresentable in the present. Books by James Joyce — , no doubt, can be treated like a commodity like any other, but open up onto a plurality of meanings. Here is how Lyotard famously defines the postmodern more positively than being merely a disbelief in metanarratives:.
The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.
A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text. Postmodern Condition , That is, they open up new ways of thinking that are unpresentable in current language games.
After Libidinal Economy , through a series of shorter works, Lyotard argued that we live again in pagan societies with many gods to be worshipped.
By this he means that we live among and through a variety of language games science, art, politics, and so on Just Gaming , Just because there is a certain set of circumstances that we can denotate does not prescribe for us what to do in light of those conditions.
Yet, leaving behind any foundation for prescriptive statements does not leave us unable to speak to what is just and unjust. For Lyotard, following Emmanuel Levinas — , we are nothing but the receivers of obligations. For Levinas, that meant that ethics was first philosophy and we were always passive to the Other who came before us.
But Lyotard argues, though, that ethics cannot be first philosophy, but is but one language game among others. And yet it is not nothing , since we are pulled into the pragmatics and practice of this particular language game that calls on us to make judgments. What is unjust, Lyotard avers,.
That is what is unjust. Not the opposite of the just, but that which prohibits that the question of the just and the unjust be, and remain, raised. Thus, obviously, all terror, annihilation, massacre, etc. Just Gaming , 66—7. What is unjust is the violent silencing of those raising claims to justice and disallowing them from making prescriptive claims, such as those colonized and left unheard by hegemonic powers.
Rather, politics is a matter of a diversity of opinions, as the non-Platonic Greeks believed, and is about nothing but this plurality of opinions. Politics, she believed, became ideological at best and totalitarian at worst if wedded to notions of truth, such as involved in the metanarratives of Marxist economic theory and its inexorable laws of history, or the racist theories of Nazism.
The task, for Lyotard, is to see that questions of justice and prescriptive language games are not simply about obeying laws. Rather, the task is to develop an attunement to the plurality of opinions and language games.
If it were just a matter of having a sure knowledge or absolute set of laws to follow, then politics would be pre-programmed and there would be no judgment worthy of the name.
Shortly after completing Libidinal Economy , Lyotard began nine years of efforts crafting his masterwork, The Differend The context, he argues, is the linguistic turn in philosophy, and his avowed method is to engage political disputes on the model of linguistic affairs Differend , xiii. The book itself contains numbered paragraphs, building on arguments he had been making in the years leading up to the work. Lyotard is clear that subjects are only such in the way that they move and are produced by moves within different language games.
Despite this linguistic model, phrases may be extralinguistic, including the very gestures, shadings, and libidinal energetics he had discussed in his earlier writings.
For every phrase, there is a regimen within which it exists, the possible significations of that phrase, the referent of the phrase, the one from whom the phrase arrives, and the addressee, the one to whom the phrase is addressed. Within each phrase regimen, there is a certain play, since there may be ambiguities along each aspect above. Any reader of Twitter knows the problem: is this meant as irony? In the form of a question?
His interdisciplinary discourse spans such topics as epistemology and communication, the human body, modern art and postmodern art , literature and critical theory , music, film, time and memory, space, the city and landscape, the sublime , and the relation between aesthetics and politics. He is best known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition. Lyotard was a key personality in contemporary Continental philosophy and author of 26 books and many articles. As a child, Lyotard had many aspirations: to be an artist, a historian, a Dominican friar, and a writer. He later gave up the dream of becoming a writer when he finished writing an unsuccessful fictional novel at the age of
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