Who Am I: Lyotard's Postmodern Philosophy (Part 1)

By: M. Zerzour, M. A. in Comp. Literature.

Jean-François Lyotard (1925-1998) was one of the most influential and widely known poststructuralist French philosophers and theorists. His versatile nature allowed him to contribute to so many fields including “political theory, ethics, aesthetics and art criticism, Judaic studies, theology, and literary theory” (Gorden et al. 308). All the same, the concern of this paper is, especially, to put emphasis on and highlight the invaluable contribution of Lyotard’s philosophical theory into literary theory, for whenever the latter is mentioned, Lyotard and his work come to light. 

Taking into account the fact that he was, in Arriaga’s terms, “the exemplary defender and arguably the foremost theoretician of postmodernity” (29), it becomes conspicuous why numerous critics tended to label him “the philosopher of the postmodern” (Gorden et al. 308). Indeed, his initial formulation of Postmodernism as a dynamic movement and period, as well as his philosophical, aesthetic, cultural and theoretical analysis of the postmodern condition, or state, of mankind in the post-modernist era and society have had a great impact on the literary scene. To understand the how of this impact, however, a systematic listing and clarification of Lyotard’s rebelling ideas are necessary: this is not to imply that this paper would encompass the myriad of thoughts articulated by Lyotard; rather, only those which are most relevant to the topic would be tackled.

This breaking is, rather, a manner of forgetting or repressing the past. That is to say of repeating it. Not overcoming it”

– J. F. Lyotard.

For the purposes of this study, it is more appropriate to begin with Lyotard’s essay, “Defining the Postmodern”, before drawing on his major work, The Postmodern Condition. In fact, Lyotard’s primal concern was to distinguish between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although the latter is said by many critics to be charged and lacking a consensus over its meaning (Hans-Piazza 63; Wolfreys et al. 142), Lyotard, in his essay, takes it upon himself to clarify what he calls the ‘Postmodern’ and to illuminate some ambiguities surrounding such term. He draws, accordingly, on architectural theory to demonstrate the difference between the modernist and the postmodernist movements. Modernism is, admittedly, the literary, artistic and cultural movement of the first half of the twentieth century centering on the idea of rejecting the previous artistic and literary traditions (Wolfreys et al. 67). This rejection or ‘break’ is seen by Lyotard as one of the shortcomings of such movement, and he aptly writes that “this breaking is, rather, a manner of forgetting or repressing the past. That is to say of repeating it. Not overcoming it” (Lyotard, Defining 1613). Therefore, not to suffer the modern Western schizophrenia once again, Lyotard suggests a new alternative, what he calls “Bricolage”: that is, “quotations of elements from previous styles and periods” (Defining 1613). Such artistic device, i.e. Bricolage, which is highly tangible in postmodern literature, would serve the purpose of recollecting, analyzing and reflecting on the past; this is referred to in psychoanalytical therapy as ‘anamnesis’, which means ‘remembering’.

Another key term in the idea of Modernity, also referred to as the ‘Enlightenment project’, is the notion of “inevitability of progress” (Wolfreys et al. 67). It is this very notion that Lyotard sets himself out to disrupt, for it holds, according to him, a sense of totalitarian, universalized emancipation of mankind as a whole. Due to the inequalities entailed by this process, the human condition gets all the more complex. Obviously, observing the last two sanguinary centuries, this force or ‘motricity’ of general development which turned to control, rather than being controlled by, man resulted only in wars, diseases and chaos. 

In light of this, Lyotard contends that “there is no longer a horizon of universalization, of general emancipation before the eyes of the postmodern man” (Defining 1612). Rather, he insists on a perspective of multiplicity. However, notwithstanding the formerly mentioned distinctions, and notwithstanding the identification of the contemporary world as postmodern (Malpas 36), to understand the postmodern as a term of ‘periodization’ or categorization is to miss Lyotard’s point. He conceives postmodernism, rather, as a “succession” of modernism, a sort of “conversion, a new direction after the previous one” (Lyotard, Defining 1613). The postmodern, in this sense, defies any thinking about time: “it challenges us to see the present in the past, the future in the present, the present in a kind of no-time” (Bennett and Royle 248).

As a matter of fact, Lyotard’s refutation of universal emancipation stems from one of his most central ideas: the demise of the ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘Metanarratives’ –Les Grands Récits-. In the introduction to his major, revelatory work, Lyotard defines the postmodern as “incredulity towards Metanarratives” (Lyotard, Condition xxiv). According to Lyotard, each society has been founded upon metanarratives that legitimated knowledge to its subjects. Christianity, Marxism, Empiricism, Enlightenment, Rationalism, liberal democracy and the progress of man, among others, are grand narratives that secure credibility for a society and justify its visions and actions (Waugh 412). Such grand stories purportedly claim to reveal the meaning of all other stories; furthermore, as Hans-Piazza put it, “they have oriented research, fixed results, determined behavior, and defined what is ‘truth’” (63-64). Now, it comes as no surprise that these metanarratives have deceived mankind and failed to orient history and men towards the originally pledged notion of emancipation. In “Defining the Postmodern”, Lyotard cites the case of ‘Auschwitz’, the Nazi’s largest concentration camp, to point out to the atrocities engendered by such narratives (Lyotard, Defining 1614). 

In other words, Lyotard rejects any one single meaning or one totalitarian, ultimate ‘truth’. This rejection is also due to Lyotard’s poststructuralist background. No doubt, one of the principal theories of postmodern-poststructuralist thought is that language creates and shapes reality and meaning (Mackean 216). Since language, the shaper of reality, is full of indeterminacy, it becomes impossible to talk about the existence of a stable reality or meaning. Therefore, and for the reasons mentioned earlier, instead of the Grand Narratives, Lyotard promotes a multiplicity or plurality of meanings through a wide variety of equally valid ‘Small Narratives’ –Petits Récits-. Each of these local, or even individual, ‘small’ narratives, according to Lyotard, would construct its own meaning and reflect its understanding of its own reality: i.e. moving from one ‘reality’ to diverse valid “realities” (Lyotard, Condition 77; Mackean 216). 

[Metanarratives] have oriented research, fixed results, determined behavior, and defined what is ‘truth.

– Hans-Piazza.

In other words, Lyotard rejects any one single meaning or one totalitarian, ultimate ‘truth’. This rejection is also due to Lyotard’s poststructuralist background. No doubt, one of the principal theories of postmodern-poststructuralist thought is that language creates and shapes reality and meaning (Mackean 216). Since language, the shaper of reality, is full of indeterminacy, it becomes impossible to talk about the existence of a stable reality or meaning. Therefore, and for the reasons mentioned earlier, instead of the Grand Narratives, Lyotard promotes a multiplicity or plurality of meanings through a wide variety of equally valid ‘Small Narratives’ –Petits Récits-. Each of these local, or even individual, ‘small’ narratives, according to Lyotard, would construct its own meaning and reflect its understanding of its own reality: i.e. moving from one ‘reality’ to diverse valid “realities” (Lyotard, Condition 77; Mackean 216). 

Lyotard’s vindication of little narratives is best understood when, following Wittgenstein, he draws on “language games” and pragmatics. The term “language games” means that the diverse types of utterances “can be defined in terms of rules specifying their properties and the uses to which they can be put” (Lyotard, Condition 10); i.e. each utterance is a ‘move’ in the game of language, precisely like the game of chess. In language, each speaker strives to have advantage over the adversary: in Lyotard’s words, “to speak is to fight” (Lyotard, Condition 10). Lyotard, hence, concludes that there is no hope for ‘universal consensus’ or agreement since the very nature of speech –Parole– is antagonistic and because “language games are heteromorphous, subject to heterogeneous sets of pragmatic rules” (Lyotard, Condition 61-65). It is indeed this heterogeneity that Lyotard advocates by calling for little narratives. Unlike the metanarrative that suppresses differences and heterogeneity, the little narrative is rooted in diversity and plurality, rather than in the homogenized state enforced by the grand narrative. The point here is to show that Lyotard insists not only on the ineluctable differences among    -or the incommensurability of- language games, but also on the diversity of cultures, human subjects and their worldview. 

Little narratives provide local explanations of individual events, and do not purport to explain everything. In this sense, they are fragmentary, contingent and non-totalizing (Bennett and Royle 251). Local differences, Lyotard claims in the Postmodern Condition, are incommensurable: that is, there are no common measures or standards by which they could be compared. No way of life or thought, hence, is to be judged as superior or inferior to another in the present, plural, postmodern condition. Subsequently, according to Lyotard, under these circumstances, “whatever exists must be tolerated” (Leitch 1611).

To be continued: click here to read the 2nd part!