Lyotard’s Contribution To Literary Theory (Part 2)

by M. Zerzour,

M.A. in Comparative Literature

With Lyotard’s demise of the all-encompassing Grand Narratives, a stark rejection of all totalizing principles and forces pervaded many spheres, including the literary one. Consequently, the idea of unity, or “the whole and the one” as Lyotard described it (Condition 81), gradually receded from view. The absolute, determinate meaning and the clear, stable reality dictated by both the master-narratives of enlightenment and modernism, whose practitioners believed in an original meaning and sought to restore it to heal their tragic loss (Mackean 215), were all subject to postmodern criticism. Thence, with this deconstruction of the traditional idea of ‘one’ meaning and ‘one’ reality, as it was shown in the first part of this study, there emerged new, revelatory and revolutionizing terms and thoughts that are sheer characteristic of postmodern literary theory. Namely, ‘indeterminacy’ of meaning and ‘undecidability’ number among this postmodern terminology. Although often used interchangeably, there is a slight difference between both notions. Whereas ‘indeterminacy’ implies a decisive conclusion that no one single meaning could be achieved and comprehended while ‘undecidability’ means that even such decisive conclusion could not be reached (Bennett and Royle 296). 

Such uncertainty about and suspicion of a unified meaning or reality is conspicuously due to Lyotard’s account, as a poststructuralist and as the “philosopher of postmodernism” (Benjamin 43), of the ‘incredulity’ towards all totalitarian systems. One of his celebrated contributions to literary theory is that the latter is now marked by the endorsement of self-reflexive ‘little narratives’ (Clarke and Gordon 29; Best and Kellner 132). These small narratives are to shake the grounds of ‘reality’ and ‘identity’ as they were pre-established in the past. 

In fact, Lyotard claims that artists and writers must create no centered reality or identity; small narratives “are destined to have little credibility in the eyes of those concerned with ‘reality’ and ‘identity’” (Condition 75). Accordingly, Lyotard, in effect, fostered “the invention of other realities” (Condition 77), of course, according to the artist’s local conditions and worldview. This is the case, for instance, of the postmodernist novels that picture individual realities in the status quo.

Small narratives are destined to have little credibility in the eyes of those concerned with ‘reality’ and ‘identity’.

– J. F. Lyotard.

Lyotard’s promotion of inventing other meanings and realities invokes other notions and ideas that now pervade the postmodernist/poststructuralist literary theory. Since any system of unity is contested, the postmodern is characterized by its ‘fragmentation’. Such fragmentation is best understood in terms of ‘dissemination’, which evokes a sense of scattering, “a scattering of origins and ends, of identity, center and presence (Bennett and Royle 251). The notion, ‘center’, in turn, leads the talk towards the idea of ‘decentering’ which somehow encompasses the two former notions. In light of such concept, the postmodern challenges logocentrism – i.e. the authority and validity of the word, the determinate, final meaning, and logic – and ethnocentrism – i.e. the authority of one ethnic identity – (Bennett and Royle 256). These two key centers of thought which persisted throughout the history of western knowledge have been, thus, disrupted or ‘decentered’, and new, key notions have appeared, notions like “alterity, otherness, a multiplicity and dispersal of centers, origins, presences” (Bennett and Royle 256). In fact, one might inquire whether or not these rebellious ideas would have risen to prominence in the literary arena had Lyotard not articulated his demise of the totalizing forces of metanarratives and urged the adoption of little narratives. 

Furthermore, Lyotard’s demise of the grand narratives was also a departure from the traditional, conventional rules governing art and literature. He has, in this respect, significantly contributed to literary theory to the extent that he formulated what might be considered a manifesto, for artists and writers, of how art ought to be. He astutely proclaims:

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 or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. (Lyotard, Condition 81)

Therefore, it is crucial to note, as critic Woods put it, that “Lyotard’s concept of the postmodern is aesthetic rather than historical” (23). In this respect, Lyotard emphasizes the postmodern “less as a period of time… than as a set of strategies undertaken by artists to infuse a new sense of the sublime” (Woods 23). 

Admittedly, the portrayal of the sublime and the departure from literary and artistic traditions are common features of both modernism and the postmodern, but there persists a slight disparity. As shown in the first part of this paper, while modernism looked for breaking with tradition once for all, Lyotard urges a breach with traditional rules yet a ‘remembrance’ of the past. As to the sublime, whereas the modernists tended to present the unpresentable by making it unseen or absent in their work and only alluding to it, i.e. “by making it impossible to see” (Lyotard, Condition 78), Lyotard calls for putting forward the unpresentable in the presentation, i.e. the work of art itself (Condition 81). Thus, Lyotard is in reality defining a postmodern theory of art and literature that is sheer distinct from the modernist one; this is precisely why he judiciously writes that “each of them [is] clearly identifiable” (Leitch 1613). 

“Each literary text inevitably bears traces of other texts…”

– Ian MacKean.

As a matter of fact, Lyotard’s disruption of the grand narrative was a deconstruction of the form and content of the narrative itself, i.e. of narrative fiction, which focused for a long time on ‘originality’ and ‘purpose’. These two notions have for a long time been the central criteria for judging the aesthetic value of a work of art (Bennett and Royle 251). Contrariwise, postmodern literature is non-teleological, and spurns originality whatsoever (Best and Kellner 132). As schematized in Hassan Habib’s Dismemberment of Orpheus, “purpose” has been replaced by “play”, and “originality” gave way to “combination” (qtd. in Malpas 8). What is emphasized, accordingly, is the play of language: how language constructs one’s perception of reality and how this reality can be deconstructed. This is referred to in Hassan’s book as the focus on the “signifier”, language, rather than the “signified”, be it reality or purpose (qtd. in Malpas 8). As a result of such shift toward the signifier, hence, postmodern fiction is often referred to as ‘metafiction’, i.e. writing about the process of writing itself, or stressing “the act of writing over the written word” (Best and Kellner 132). On the other hand, “combination” refers to the fact that the postmodern work draws eclectically and, oftentimes, ironically on “past forms” (Best and Kellner 132), sometimes mixing reality with fantasy, i.e. ‘magic realism’ (Mackean 218). This reference to past elements is undoubtedly reminiscent of the catalytic technique promoted by Lyotard, Bricolage, as discussed in the first part, which makes Lyotard’s significant impact on literary theory clear and uncontested. Consequently, the postmodern outlook refuses the idea of creating a thoroughly original work. What distinguishes postmodern literature currently is ‘intertextuality’. This is to infer that “each literary text inevitably bears traces of other texts…” (Mackean 216). However, such imitation of earlier texts is chiefly used not innocently, but cynically. This playful manner of utilizing past elements “with a parodic intent” marks postmodern literary works strikingly, and it is called “pastiche” (Mackean 216). Hence, such ironical eclecticism and such intertextuality, promoted by the pioneering work of Lyotard, resulted in the freedom of writers to employ diverse cultural forms and genres in postmodern literature, collapsing the distinctions between “high” and “low” forms of art, i.e. the postmodern work of art became “a mosaic of differences in language, form and style” (Mackean 218). Notably, Lyotard’s contribution to literary theory is most palpable and best understood when one considers that such richness of multiplicity reaching beyond the “differends” (Lyotard, Condition 82), i.e. conflicts or differences of opinion, was the utmost goal Lyotard sought to achieve.

It would, perhaps, be adequate to note that postmodern novels can be seen as the pure embodiment of Lyotard’s variegated theory, of his vision and definition of the Postmodern. A novel like The French Lieutnant’s Woman, by John Fowles, parodies the Victorian novel form, whereas E. D. Thomas chooses in his The White Hotel to combine a fictional character, the protagonist Lisa Erdman, with a real historical figure, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Mackean 216-7).

To sum up this wide-ranging scope of the postmodern, as formulated by Lyotard and developed by others, it is deemed relevant to quote Hassan Habib’s words in this context. The postmodern, he maintains, could be summarized by a list of words beginning with ‘de-’ and ‘di-’: “deconstruction, decentering, dissemination, dispersal, displacement, difference, discontinuity, demystification, delegitimation, disappearance” (qtd. in Bennett and Royle 256).

Although Lyotard’s contribution is, at the present time, a truism, this general, condensed outlook would hopefully be of more clarification to it. Lyotard, whose work was -and still is- both praised and criticized, would always be remembered, and literary theory would perennially be indebted to figures like him.


Arriaga, Manuel P. The Modernist-postmodernist Quarrel on Philosophy and Justice: A Possible Levinasian Mediation. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2006. Print.

Benjamin, Andrew E. Judging Lyotard. London: Routledge, 1992. Google Books. Web. 10 january 2013.

Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2004. Print.

Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guilford, 1997. Google Books. Web. 3 january 2013.

Clark, Roger, and Andy Gordon. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2003. Google Books. Web. 3 january 2013.

Groden, Michael, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: The Johns Hopkins Guide. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. Google Books. Web. 9 january 2013.

Hens-Piazza, Gina. Nameless, Blameless, and without Shame: Two Cannibal Mothers before a King. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2003. Google Books. Web. 10 january 2013.

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York, NY: Norton, 2001. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “Defining the Postmodern”. Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York, NY: Norton, 2001. Print.

—. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Print.

MacKean, Ian. The Essentials of Literature in English, Post-1914. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005. Print.

Malpas, Simon. The Postmodern. London: Routledge, 2005. Google Books. Web. 7 january 2013.

Waugh, Patricia. Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Google Books. Web. 5 january 2013.

Wolfreys, Julian, Ruth Robbins, and Kenneth Womack. Key Concepts in Literary Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006. Print.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999. Google Books. Web. 3 january 2013.