Jean-François Lyotard. Photo by Bracha L. Ettinger, 1995.
10 August 1924|
21 April 1998 (aged 73)|
University of Paris (B.A., M.A.)|
University of Paris X (DrE, 1971)
Lycée of Constantine (1950-52)|
Collège Henri-IV de La Flèche (1959-66)
University of Paris (1959-66)
University of Paris X (1967-72)
Centre national de la recherche scientifique (1968-70)
University of Paris VIII (1972-87)
Collège International de Philosophie
Johns Hopkins University
University of California, San Diego
University of California, Berkeley
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
University of California, Irvine (1987-94)
Emory University (1994-98)
|The Sublime, Judaism, sociology|
The "postmodern condition"|
Collapse of the "grand narrative", libidinal economy
Jean-François Lyotard (French: [ fswa lj?ta?]; 10 August 1924 - 21 April 1998) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and literary theorist. 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 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition. He was co-founder of the International College of Philosophy with Jacques Derrida, François Châtelet, and Gilles Deleuze.
Jean François Lyotard was born on August 10, 1924 in Vincennes, France to Jean-Pierre Lyotard, a sales representative, and Madeleine Cavalli. He went to primary school at the Paris Lycée Buffon and Louis-le-Grand. As a child, Lyotard had many aspirations: to be an artist, a historian, a Dominican monk, 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 15. Ultimately, Lyotard describes the realization that he would not become any of these occupations as "fate" in his autobiography called Peregrinations, published in 1986.
He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in the late 1940s. His 1947 DES thesis (diplôme d'études supérieures, roughly equivalent to an MA thesis), Indifference as an Ethical Concept (L'indifférence comme notion éthique), analyzed forms of indifference and detachment in Zen Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, and Epicureanism. After graduation, he held a research post at France's National Center for Scientific Research. In 1950, Lyotard took up a position teaching philosophy in Constantine in French Algeria. In 1971, Lyotard earned a State doctorate with his dissertation Discours, figure under Mikel Dufrenne--the work was published the same year. He married his first wife, Andree May, in 1948 with whom he had two children, Corinne and Laurence, and later married for a second time in 1993 to Dolores Djidzek, the mother of his son David (born in 1986).
In 1954, Lyotard became a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie, a French political organisation formed in 1948 around the inadequacy of the Trotskyist analysis to explain the new forms of domination in the Soviet Union. Socialisme ou Barbarie had an objective to conduct a critique of Marxism from within during the Algerian war of liberation. His writings in this period mostly concern with ultra-left politics, with a focus on the Algerian situation--which he witnessed first-hand while teaching philosophy in Constantine. He wrote optimistic essays of hope and encouragement to the Algerians, which was reproduced in Political Writings. Lyotard hoped to encourage an Algerian fight for independence from France, and a social revolution. Following disputes with Cornelius Castoriadis in 1964, Lyotard left Socialisme ou Barbarie for the newly formed splinter group Pouvoir Ouvrier, before resigning from Pouvoir Ouvrier in turn in 1966. Although Lyotard played an active part in the May 1968 uprisings, he distanced himself from revolutionary Marxism with his 1974 book Libidinal Economy. He distanced himself from Marxism because he felt that Marxism had a rigid structuralist approach and they were imposing 'systematization of desires' through strong emphasis on industrial production as the ground culture.
Lyotard taught at the Lycée of Constantine, Algeria from 1950 to 1952. In 1972, Lyotard began teaching at the University of Paris VIII; he taught there until 1987 when he became Professor Emeritus. During the next two decades he lectured outside France, notably as a Professor of Critical Theory at the University of California, Irvine and as visiting professor at universities around the world. These included: Johns Hopkins University, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Stony Brook University and the University of California, San Diego in the U.S., the Université de Montréal in Quebec (Canada), and the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He was also a founding director and council member of the Collège International de Philosophie, Paris. Before his death, he split his time between Paris and Atlanta, where he taught at Emory University as the Woodruff Professor of Philosophy and French.
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.
In his writings of the early 1970s, he rejects what he regards as theological underpinnings of both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud: "In Freud, it is judaical, critical sombre (forgetful of the political); in Marx it is catholic. Hegelian, reconciliatory (...) in the one and in the other the relationship of the economic with meaning is blocked in the category of representation (...) Here a politics, there a therapeutics, in both cases a laical theology, on top of the arbitrariness and the roaming of forces". Consequently, he rejected Theodor W. Adorno's negative dialectics because he viewed them as seeking a "therapeutic resolution in the framework of a religion, here the religion of history." In Lyotard's "libidinal economics" he aimed at "discovering and describing different social modes of investment of libidinal intensities".
Lyotard is a skeptic for modern cultural thought. According to his La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), the impact of the postmodern condition was to provoke skepticism about universalizing theories. Lyotard argues that we have outgrown our needs for grand narratives due to the advancement of techniques and technologies since World War II. He argues against the possibility of justifying the narratives that bring together disciplines and social practices, such as science and culture; "the narratives we tell to justify a single set of laws and stakes are inherently unjust." A loss of faith in meta-narratives has an effect on how we view science, art, and literature. Little narratives have now become the appropriate way for explaining social transformations and political problems. Lyotard argues that this is the driving force behind postmodern science. As metanarratives fade, science suffers a loss of faith in its search for truth, and therefore must find other ways of legitimating its efforts. Connected to this scientific legitimacy is the growing dominance for information machines. Lyotard argues that one day, in order for knowledge to be considered useful, it will have to be converted into computerized data. Years later, this led him into writing his book The Inhuman, published in 1988, in which he illustrates a world where technology has taken over.
Most famously, in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), he proposes what he calls an extreme simplification of the "postmodern" as an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'. These meta-narratives--sometimes 'grand narratives'--are grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. He points out that no one seemed to agree on what, if anything, was real and everyone had their own perspective and story. We have become 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 Lyotard draws from the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lyotard notes that it is based on mapping of society according to the concept of the language games.
In Lyotard's works, the term 'language games', 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 circulation are created. This involves, for example, an incredulity towards the metanarrative of human emancipation. That is, the story of how the human race has set itself free that brings together the language game of science, the language game of human historical conflicts and the language game of human qualities into the overall justification of the steady development of the human race in terms of wealth and moral well-being. According to this metanarrative, the justification of science is related to wealth and education. The development of history is seen as a steady progress towards civilization or moral well-being. The language game of human passions, qualities and faults (c.f. character flaws (narratives)), is seen as steadily shifting in favor of our qualities and away from our faults as science and historical developments help us to conquer our faults in favor of our qualities. The point is that any event ought to be able to be understood in terms of the justifications of this metanarrative; anything that happens can be understood and judged according to the discourse of human emancipation. For example, for any new social, political or scientific revolution we could ask the question, "Is this revolution a step towards the greater well-being of the mass of human beings?" It should always be possible to answer this question in terms of the rules of justification of the metanarrative of human emancipation.
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 shalt not steal' is an ethical statement in a way that 'thou shalt 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 ('thou shalt not steal from anyone'). 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 them to another. Ethical behaviour is about remaining alert precisely to the threat of this injustice, about paying attention to things in their particularity and not enclosing them within abstract conceptuality. One must bear witness to the 'differend.' In a differend, there is a conflict between two parties that cannot be solved in a just manner. However, the act of being able to bridge the two and understand the claims of both parties, is the first step towards finding a solution.
"I would like to call a differend the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim. If the addressor, the addressee, and the sense of the testimony are neutralized, everything takes place as if there were no damages. A case of differend between two parties takes place when the regulation of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom."
In more than one book, Lyotard promoted what he called paganism and contrasted it with both the rejection of the pagan gods in Book II of Plato's The Republic and the monotheism of Judaism. Lyotard argued that the pagan gods, unlike Platonic philosophy and monotheism, never claimed to have universal truth, but instead were better than humans because they were better at deceit and metamorphosis. Lyotard's paganism was also feminist because he argued that women, like paganism, are antirational and antiphilosophical.
In The Differend, based on Immanuel Kant's views on the separation of Understanding, Judgment, and Reason, Lyotard identifies the moment in which language fails as the differend, and explains it as follows: "...the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be... the human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication, learn through the feeling of pain which accompanies silence (and of pleasure which accompanies the invention of a new idiom)". Lyotard undermines the common view that the meanings of phrases can be determined by what they refer to (the referent). The meaning of a phrase--an event (something happens)--cannot be fixed by appealing to reality (what actually happened). Lyotard develops this view of language by defining "reality" in an original way, as a complex of possible senses attached to a referent through a name. The correct sense of a phrase cannot be determined by a reference to reality, since the referent itself does not fix sense, and reality itself is defined as the complex of competing senses attached to a referent. Therefore, the phrase event remains indeterminate.
Lyotard uses the example of Auschwitz and the revisionist historian Faurisson's demands for proof of the Holocaust to show how the differend operates as a double bind (a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions). Faurisson will only accept proof of the existence of gas chambers from eyewitnesses who were themselves victims of the gas chambers. However, any such eyewitnesses are dead and are not able to testify. Either there were no gas chambers, in which case there would be no eyewitnesses to produce evidence, or there were gas chambers, in which case there would still be no eyewitnesses to produce evidence, because they would be dead. Since Faurisson will accept no evidence for the existence of gas chambers, except the testimony of actual victims, he will conclude from both possibilities (gas chambers existed and gas chambers did not exist) that gas chambers did not exist. This presents a double bind. There are two alternatives, either there were gas chambers or there were not, which lead to the same conclusion: there were no gas chambers (and no final solution). The case is a differend because the harm done to the victims cannot be presented in the standard of judgement upheld by Faurisson.
Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. 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. Lyotard has written extensively also on few contemporary artists of his choice: Valerio Adami, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Bracha Ettinger and Barnett Newman, as well as on Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky.
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. A sublime is the conjunction of two opposed feelings, which makes it harder for us to see the injustice of it, or a solution to it.
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 'mathematically' sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. More precisely, we experience a clash between our reason (which tells us that all objects are finite) and the imagination (the aspect of the mind that organizes what we see, and which sees an object incalculably larger than ourselves, and feels infinite). In the 'dynamically' sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than we, 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.
What is deeply unsettling about the mathematically 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. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation. With the dynamically 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 dwarfed by its power 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.
In one of Lyotard's most famous books, Libidinal Economy he offers a critique of Marx's "false consciousness" and claims that the 19th century working class enjoyed being a part of the industrialization process. Lyotard claims that this is due to libidinal energy. The term "libidinal" coming from the term libido which is used to refer to the psychoanalytical desires of our deeper consciousness. Lyotard's writings in Libidinal Economy is an achievement in our attempts to live with the rejection of all religious and moral principles through an undermining of the structures associated with it. Structures conceal libidinal intensities while intense feelings and desires force us away from set structures. However, there also can be no intensities or desires without structures, because there would be no dream of escaping the repressive structures if they do not exist. "Libidinal energy comes from this disruptive intervention of external events within structures that seek order and self-containment." This was the first of Lyotard's writings that had really criticized a Marxist view. It achieved great success, but was also the last of Lyotard's writings on this particular topic where he really went against the views of Karl Marx.
In 1985, Lyotard co-curated the exhibition Les Immatériaux at the Centre de Création Industrielle of Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, together with the design theorist and curator Thierry Chaput.
Lyotard was impressed by the importance of childhood in human life, which he saw as providing the opportunity of creativity, as opposed to the settled hubris of maturity. In 'The Grip', however, he also explored the hold of childhood experience on the individual through the (Roman) concept of the Mancipium, or authoritative right of possession. Because parental influences affect the new-born before it has the linguistic skill even to articulate - let alone oppose - them, Lyotard considered that "We are born from others but also to others, given over defenceless to them. Subject to their mancipium."
Some of the latest works that Lyotard had been working on were both writings about a French writer, activist, and politician, André Malraux. One of them being a biography, Signed, Malraux. Lyotard was interested in the aesthetic views of society that Malraux shared. Lyotard's other book was named The Confession of Augustine and was a study in the phenomenology of time. This work-in-progress was published posthumously in the same year of Lyotard's death.
Lyotard repeatedly returned to the notion of the Postmodern in essays gathered in English as The Postmodern Explained to Children, Toward the Postmodern, and Postmodern Fables. In 1998, while preparing for a conference on postmodernism and media theory, he died unexpectedly from a case of leukemia that had advanced rapidly. He is buried in Division 6 of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
There are three major criticisms of Lyotard's work. Each coincides with a school of thought. Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy have written deconstructions of Lyotard's work (Derrida 1992; Nancy 1985). They focus on Lyotard's postmodern work and on The Differend in particular. A differend depends upon a distinction drawn between groups that itself depends upon the heterogeneity of language games and genres of discourse. Why should these differences be privileged over an endless division and reconstruction of groups? In concentrating on specific differences, Lyotard's thought becomes overly dependent on differences; between categories that are given as fixed and well defined. From the point of view of deconstruction, Lyotard's philosophy gives too much credit to illegitimate categories and groups. Underlying any different there is a multiplicity of further differences; some of these will involve crossing the first divide, others will question the integrity of the groups that were originally separated.
Manfred Frank (1988) has put the Frankfurt School criticism best. It attacks Lyotard's search for division over consensus on the grounds that it involves a philosophical mistake with serious political and social repercussions. Lyotard has failed to notice that an underlying condition for consensus is also a condition for the successful communication of his own thought. It is a performative contradiction to give an account that appeals to our reason on behalf of a difference that is supposed to elude it. So, in putting forward a false argument against a rational consensus, Lyotard plays into the hands of the irrational forces that often give rise to injustice and differ ends. Worse, he is then only in a position to testify to that injustice, rather than put forward a just and rational resolution.
From a Nietzschean and Deleuzian point of view (James Williams 2000), Lyotard's postmodern philosophy took a turn toward a destructive modern nihilism that his early work avoids. The different and the sublime are negative terms that introduce a severe pessimism at the core of Lyotard's philosophy. Both terms draw lines that cannot be crossed and yet they mark the threshold of that which is most valuable for the philosophy, that which is to be testified to and its proper concern. It is not possible repetitively to lend an ear to the sublime without falling into despair due to its fleeting nature. Whenever we try to understand or even memorize: the activity of testimony through the sublime, it can only be as something that has now dissipated and that we cannot capture.
Charles J. Stivale, of Wayne State University, wrote a critique of Lyotard's The Differend for The French Review, in 1990. In it, he states: "Jean-François Lyotard's is a dense work of philosophical, political and ethical reflection aimed at a specialized audience versed in current debates in logic, pragmatics and post-structuralism. Even George Van Den Abbeele's excellent translation, complete with a glossary of French terms not available in the original text (Paris: Minuit, 1983), does not, indeed cannot, alleviate the often terse prose with which Lyotard develops his reasoning. With this said, I must also observe that this work is of vital importance in a period when revisionism of all stripes attempts to rewrite, and often simply deny, the occurrence of historical and cultural events, i.e. in attempting to reconstruct 'reality" in the convenient names of "truth" and "common sense" ... This overview must leave unexplored the broad philosophical bases from which Lyotard draws support, as well as important questions that he raises regarding history, justice and critical judgement. I can conclude only by suggesting that this work, despite the formidable difficulties inherent to its carefully articulated arguments, offers readers a rich formulation of precise questions for and about the current period of critical transition and re-opening in philosophy, ethics and aesthetics."
The collective tribute to Lyotard following his death was organized by the Collège International de Philosophie, and chaired by Dolores Lyotard and Jean-Claude Milner, the College's director at that time. The proceedings were published by PUF in 2001 under the general title Jean-François Lyotard, l'exercice du différend.
Lyotard's work continues to be important in politics, philosophy, sociology, literature, art, and cultural studies. To mark the tenth anniversary of Lyotard's death, An international symposium about Jean-François Lyotard organized by the Collège International de Philosophie (under the direction of Dolores Lyotard, Jean-Claude Milner and Gerald Sfez) was held in Paris from January 25-27 in 2007.
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