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J. F. Lyotard

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Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-1998)



Lyotard was born in Vincennes and was the son of a salesman. In his youth he aspired to the Dominican Order, or to be a painter or a novelist but eventually studied philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne where he became friends with Gilles Deleuze. His early studies involved the philosophiy of indifference and resulted in his M.A. dissertation Indifference as an Ethical Notion. His life until the Second World War was 'a poetic, introspective and solitary way of thinking and living.' During the war, in 1944, he acted as a first-aid volunteer in the fight for the liberation of Paris and subsequently adopted a commitment to the investigation of social interactions. In 1948 he married and acquired a teaching credential. He and his wife had two children. in 1950 he took up a position teaching philoosophy at a boys' school in French-occupied Algeria. From 1952 to 1959 he taught the sons of the occupying French military. During that time he read Marx and became convinced that the situation in Algeria was ripe for a socialist revolution. In 1954 when the war of independence broke out he became a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie,(Socialism or Barbarism) a political organisation formed to interrogate the emerging forms of domination in the Soviet Union. The group became increasinjgly popular after the suppression of the East German revolt of 1953 and the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1957. At this time he was completely committed to left wing revolutionary politics, writing for and occasionally editing Socialisme ou Barbarie. The latter became increasingly anti-Marxist. He resigned from the group in 1964. He was still committed to his socialist beliefs, however but after he gained a position at the University of Paris at Nanterre in 1966, Lyotard's philosophies moved inexorably to challenge all unitary and totalising interpretations of history - including the Enlightenment and Marxism. His leanings (much like Chomsky ) were increasingly towards worker collectives. Nanterre was a principal site of the student uprisings in May 1968, and Lyotard was heavily involved in supporting the student movement which sought to wrest the control of education from the State and to lodge it in the hands of the students. The fact that the Communist Party of France betrayed the students at the very moment of thei imminent success by reaching an accord with de Gaulle only served to reinforce Lyotard's ideology.


During the mid-1960s Lyotard attended the famous seminars by the radical psychiatrist Jacques Lacan - a revisionist Freudian who has been widely cited in the literature on Postmodern theorising. Increasingly Lyotard began to challenge normative theories of knowledge and in  the 1970s he came to international prominence with the publication of his famous book The Postmoderen Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). Here he devfeloped his critique of the Enlightenment in its fullest form,noting specifically that science has been the occasion and cause for untold crimes against humanity. He suggests that science is merely one "language" game among many - each with its own set of internally consistent values and rules, but that all of these systems of knowledge are incommensurate. He saves his severest criticism for the demolition of what he calls the Grand Narratives - those ideologicaly based theories that purport to totalise and uniformalise our perceptions of reality - for instance the deeply accepted societal myths of Universal Emancipation, absolute truth and the speculative unity of all knowledge.  These mythologies, according to Lyotard are used to legitimate and support others (Progress, Objectivity etc.) which frame and order how we conceive of knowledge itself and within this, how we perceive ourselves as rational subjects, how we define the quality of humanness etc. From this perspective, each epistemological discipline usually asserts its legitimacy by reference to something outside of itself, ultimately to one of these Grand Narratives. Epistemological reality is by this means subject to a continual and necessary process of external legitimation. Marxism, for Lyotard, increasingly fell into this category. Science, as the quintessential tool of Enlightenment rationality comes in for special attention:

"With modern science, two new features appear in the problematic of legitimation. To begin with it leaves behind the metaphysical search for a first proof or transcendental authority as a response to the question, "How do you prove the proof?" or more generally, "Who decides the conditions of truth?" It is recognised that the conditions of truth, in other words the rules of the game of science, are immanent in that game, that they can only be established within the bonds of a debate that is already scientific in nature, and that there is no other proof that the rules are good than the consensus extended to them by the experts."

This being the case, the ability of science to carry out its legitimation function is severely compromised:

 "It is therefore impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa: the relevant criteria are different. All we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant or animal species... (nevertheless) The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation or proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children... This unequal relationship is an intrinsic effect of the rules specific to each game. We all know its symptoms. It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilisation. It is important to recognise this special tenor, which sets it apart from all other forms of imperialism; it is governed by the demand for legitimation." 

Postmodernism for Lyotard, is therefore a moment of fracture with the past, with Enlightenment rationality, which he sees as being the very source of imperialism. In his presentation of Postmodernism, Lyotard suggested that Postmodernism originated in the post-war revelations of the atrocities of the Nazi death camps and the horrors of the Stalinist gulags. The dilemma these posed could not be explained as a mere aberration in the onward march of human progress and freedom, but rather as the embodiment of rationalism in extremis, using Universal Emancipation as its banner. The failure of the Marxist analysis to either predict the failure of Communism to ignite a worldwide revolution, coupled with the accord reached between de Gaulle and the french Government - together with Marxism's own reliance upon the Grand Narrative of human emancipation led Lyotard to ultimately to reject marxism . He was also critical of the marxist revisionism of the Frankfurt theorists, for, as he noted:

"...the social function of the principle of division, or class struggle, was blurred to the point of losing all its radicality; we cannot conceal the fact that the critical model in the end lost its theoretical standing and was reduced to the status of "utopia" or "hope" - a token protest raised in the name of man or reason or creativity, or again of some social category - such as the Third World or the students - on which is conferred in extremis the henceforth improbable function of critical subject"  

But Lyotard's version of Postmodernism has itself been accused of establishing yet another Grand Narrative to replace those it has criticised and has done so, furthermore, by abandoning any notion of a moral imperative associated with his "language games" that might guide us in our social relations and in our specific relatio9ns with power. His analysis takes the form af a hermeneutic rationality which, as Giroux has noted:

"Though hermeneutic rationality has disposed of the illusion of objectivism, it has failed to develop an analysis that unravels how the relationship among power, norms, and meaning function within a specific socio-historical context to promote forms of self-misunderstanding as well as to support and sustain modes of structural domination. The hermeneutic mode of rationality does not ask the central question: How is it that a social system steeped in domination can legitimizse itself through a set of meanings and practice that prevent the development of an open, self-critical community of inquiring citizens?"  

Critical philosopher Seyla Benhabib also provides an informative critique of Lyotard's version of postmodern-hermeneutic rationality, and at the same time sheds light upon the importance of a dialectical approach or reflexivity in all social theorising. She notes that the delegitimation of meta-narratives, the abandonment of the principles of universal truth or justice, and the reduction of social discourse to a series of "language games" - "the end of humanism" - presents us with two alternative views of history and social process. In the first (postmodern) case, society is viewed as a functional whole in which "performativity" becomes the guiding principle of knowledge. Knowledge in this sense is no longer regarded as a unified field behind which there stands a given reality which it is the task of science to discover and represent, but as a fragmented and dichotomous series of contingencies which acquire their legitimacy from the extent to which they satisfy the immediate needs of enquiry - the extent to which they "perform" within the narrow requirements of efficiency, productivity, and so on. This model basically depoliticises knowledge by disassociating it from the Enlightenment meta-narratives which have previously given it life.

In her critique of Lyotard, Benhabib goes on to note that the Enlightenment critique of the classical produced a fragmentation of the world into a tripartite epistemology - that of the observer (the subject), that of the observed (the object) and that of the signs by which we represent the observed. She aligns the critique of the episteme of subjectivity to Marx, who established history as a human artifact and not as an inexorable tendency of which humanity was merely the object. The world of the observed object on the other hand she assigns to Neitzsche, and to the tendency (most eloquently delineated by Sartre) between the object in-itself and for-itself - in other words, the distinction drawn between the object "as it really is" as opposed to the object "as apprehended". This distinction presumes a particular Cartesian form of subject, one in which a split between perception, and cognition, between the senses and the intellect, becomes fundamental. It is precisely this split in modern man (sic!) which Benhabib traces through Horkheimer and Adorno and which, she suggests, lies at the root of the need to dominate the world in order to apprehend it, since it is the conceptual structures which we overlay on the in-itself which in Western tradition imposes a homogeneity upon the world.

The third traditional critique of the classical, according to Benhabib, concerns the world of representation, of the signs by which we communicate our understandings of the world, and which become the filter through which we ultimately perceive it. This episteme she attributes to Ferdinand de Saussure and Wittgenstein. She notes that during the course of the twentieth century there has been a gradual movement in philosophy from the subject through the object to the sign and that it is here that Lyotard's theories properly sit. One of the implications of this epistemology of representation suggests (after de Saussure) that meaning is a collective phenomenon - that there are no private meanings. Coupled with Freire' s sense that in naming the world we make the world, this corresponds to Berger and Luckmann' s admonition that:

"Man's self-production is always and of necessity, a social enterprise. Men together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations. None of these formations may be understood as products of man's biological constitution, which... only provides the outer limits for human productive activity. Just as it is impossible for man to develop as man in isolation, so it is impossible for man in isolation to produce a human environment." 
Representation is also an issue for the French Structuralists who suggest that meaning may be derived with no reference to a living subjectivity, but result from  a system of structures and oppositions embedded in language etc. Lyotard suggests a third possibility - that of the fundamental irreconcilability of all "language games" - an "agnostics of language", as he calls it, in which different social realities are played out on the basis of local rather than global legitimacy. In other words, to a "possibility of justice beyond consensus".  It is in this sense in which the paradox of Lyotard's postmodernist hermeneutic rationality begins to emerge, where we begin to question the basis of a definition of justice which potentially leaves behind any notion of injustice, any reference to social inequality or power. Can justice, for instance,  be a (merely) local affair, or is its meaning only to be found as an absolute, no matter how inadequately or inarticulately framed? While Lyotard's high-minded rhetoric about oppression and cultural imperialism sounds plausible, he fails, in promoting it, to state from what moral position precisely he himself views the issue:
"The rhetorics of language (he) espouses does not distinguish between raising a validity claim and forcing someone to believe in something, between co-ordination of action among participants on the basis of conviction generated through agreement and the manipulative influencing of the behaviour of others".  

In other words, Lyotard's own rejection of the meta-narrative of Universal Emancipation (for instance) cannot be itself legitimated without reference to something more than local imperatives, and in the absence of such more general legitimation, Lyotard himself is reduced to the level of personal conjecture which leaves him and us begging the question. He fails to distinguish between the investment of authority and the effective exercise of authority, the former being a matter of validity, the latter a matter of power. As Benhabib notes, one may be invested with authority but unable to exercise it, while on the other hand, others may be effective in exercising authority but may not be invested with the right to exercise it. Such, for instance is the case in a revolutionary setting, where old orders of invested authority and power are confronted by new orders which may be more effective in its exercise. This lapse leaves Lyotard to suggest that "only the one who effectively exercises authority is also invested with the title to it...." which boils down to the fact that, might and right become indistinguishable.  While Lyotard presents the concept of the "language game", he significantly does not tell us what the rules of these games are, or if they are merely contingent or deadly serious. Referring obliquely to the experience of the games, he suggests that :

"to speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech-acts fall within the general domain of agnostics. This does not necessarily mean that one plays in order to win."  (emphasis added)

The game, for Lyotard, operates without recognition of the disparities of power and suffering that characterise the everyday world. Philosophy is reduced in his analysis to a peripheral, an inconsequential play which is disconnected from the arena of social struggle. Yet it is paradoxically so devised on the basis, on the promise indeed, of its ability to release us from cultural imperialism and terror. Social criticism is, under these circumstances, reduced to a context-dependent activity, without any centralising theme. The oppression of women, for instance, while without doubt operating at a global level is denied any comparable unifying critique or meta-narrative in Lyotard's scheme, which might otherwise explain its universality.  As Lyotard's feminist critics Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson put it in their book: Feminism/Postmodernism:Thinking Gender, his polemic leaves no place for challenging pervasive axes of stratification, of forms of dominance and subordination along lines like gender, race and class.

Yet it is precisely in order to absolve us from the terror of broad-based oppression that Lyotard delegitimises the meta-narratives in the first place. This non-reflexive contradiction within his theorising is then legitimated by another. He sets out to convince us that he wishes to delegitimate science and to elevate, at the same time, (at least by inference) the narrative knowledge forms of pre-modernism. He tells us that science normatively consigns these to mere irrationality:

"The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation and proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality; savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children."

It seems from this that Lyotard is expressing a solidarity with the bearers of these narratives, against the scientists, yet he constructs an epistemology of narrative knowledge in such a way that it can no longer challenge scientific knowledge, let alone provide a criterion transcending it. For Lyotard narrative knowledge belongs to the past. In maintaining that narrative knowledge does not prioritise its own legitimation, but justifies itself "in the pragmatics of its own transmission without having recourse to argumentation or proof",  he consigns it to an inferior status, particularly in view of the fact that he later uses the fractured conceptions of postmodern mathematics to further his own arguments.  for his own delegitimated model of science (albeit non-reflexively) and as a privileged status over narrative forms. While appearing to equate narrative and scientific forms of knowledge, Lyotard fails to allow them a discursive equality in practice and ends up leaving everything as it is.  In this way, his postmodernism falls into the trap of an internal contradiction - a failure to reflect critically upon his own premise - to apply to his own theorising the same critical criteria which he applies to modernism.

An alternative view of society which seems opposed to Lyotard's postmodern theorising is that of society as divided into two, as "an alienated, bifurcated totality, in need of unification"  This view, exemplified by the writings of Habermas, extends marxist theorising beyond the language of determinism, and it is against this polemic that Lyotard pitches his hermeneutic theories. He does so on the premise that it is precisely the totalising nature of such discourses that flow from this position (Marx et. al.) which have previously prevented the liberation they purport to deliver. In their place, he suggests the abandonment of totalisations tout court

In a further penetrating analysis of Lyotard's work, art critic and art historian Hal Foster has suggested (in his ground-breaking book The Anti-Aesthetic) that Postmodernism itself is not a uniform category. He suggests, for instance, that there are different kinds of Postmodernism - in particular, a Postmodernism of Reaction, and an opposing Postmodernism of Resistance, the latter working for emancipatory ideals and social change. 

Despite these justifiable critiques, there is no doubt that Jean-François Lyotard's Postmodernism has had a remarkable influence on the philosophy of knowledge in the late 20th Century. His philosophies have impacted significantly in almost all epistemological fields and whether we accept them or not, have helped to extend our understanding of social justice, power and knowledge.

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