JEAN-FRANçOIS LYOTARD (French: ; 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
* 1 Biography
* 1.1 Early life, educational background, and family * 1.2 Political life * 1.3 Academic career
* 2 Work
* 3 Later life and death * 4 Criticism * 5 Influence * 6 Selected publications * 7 See also * 8 Notes * 9 Further reading * 10 External links
EARLY LIFE, EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND, AND FAMILY
Jean François Lyotard was born on August 10, 1924 in
He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in the late 1940s. His 1947 DES thesis (_diplôme d\'études supérieures (fr)_, 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
Lyotard taught at the Lycée of Constantine (fr), 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
Johns Hopkins University , University of California,
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
THE POSTMODERN CONDITION
Lyotard is a skeptic for modern cultural thought. 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
World War II
THE COLLAPSE OF THE "GRAND NARRATIVE" AND "LANGUAGE-GAMES"
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 _ 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
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 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 .
LATER LIFE AND DEATH
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 Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
There are three major criticisms of Lyotard's work. Each coincides with a school of thought. Jaques 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 "performance 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
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* _Discourse, Figure_. Trans. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011 ISBN 978-0816645657
* _Libidinal Economy_. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. Bloomington:
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* _Duchamp's TRANS/formers_. Trans. Ian McLeod. California: Lapis
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* _Just Gaming_. Trans.
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