Key Theories of Jean Francois Lyotard

A French philosopher of the post-structuralist school, Jean Francois Lyotard (1925-1998) is perhaps best known for his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). In that work, Lyotard attempted to define the principle aspects of postmodernity in the wake of developing technology. Technology transforms knowledge:

We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned . . . the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. (Lyotard 1979, p. 4)

Thought, then, becomes subject to ‘the hegemony of computers’, and the thinking subject is displaced by the inherently machinic tendencies of modern technology. Postmodernism fits into this scenario in that it embodies a critique of the subject, for whom knowledge, under the conditions dictated by technology, becomes externalised. Knowledge, transformed in this way, becomes linked to exchange value and the play of exterior forces. Lyotard thus defines the postmodern in relation to the immanent consequences of technical/scientific knowledge forms, but also in connection with alternative narrative knowledge’ forms (1979, p. 7).

Scientific knowledge, Lyotard claims, is not a ‘totality’, but exists in relation to the larger domain of narrative knowledges, which it has a tendency to exclude. These latter, however, form the basis of social cohesion. Science requires one discursive practice in order to function, which relies on the assumed existence of criteria of evidence (the empirical level), and the belief that an empirical referent cannot provide two contradictory proofs. This, for Lyotard, is science’s ‘metaphysical’ assumption, which it itself cannot prove. On the social level, however, this assumption, in excluding other knowledge forms, has the effect of splitting science off from the social order, and the relationship between knowledge and society ‘becomes one of mutual exteriority’ (pp. 24, 25). This, in turn, demonstrates that it is not possible to judge the validity of scientific claims by reference to narrative knowledge claims, or vice versa. Questions of legitimation stem from this tension, in so far as the development of ‘postmodern science’ (p. 60) has demonstrated the futility of trying to construct ‘grand narratives’ which seek to describe the totality of experience. Experience itself thus exceeds the limits of cognitive grasp. Postmodernism steps in at this point as a pragmatic response to the problem of legitimation which attempts to provide alternative narratives, but nevertheless spurns the pretension to universal knowledge claims.

Fragmentation is, however, a consequence of science itself. Lyotard notes that, in the same way that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of European nihilism turned on the idea of science as having reached the point of realising that it itself did not match up to its own criteria for truth, so, too, the search for legitimation, which defines all knowledge forms, has a natural tendency to arrive at the point of delegitimation (p. 39). In other words, knowledge always finds itself to be rooted in unprovable assumptions. Hence the possibility of error is teleologically encoded into the project of knowledge. Thus, Lyotard concludes that the destruction of grand narratives is a result inherent in the search for knowledge itself What he terms ‘postmodern scientific knowledge’ (p. 54) is therefore an immanent condition of all knowledge. Grand narratives are, in consequence, best replaced by ‘little narrative[s]’ oriented towards ‘a multiplicity of finite met a-arguments’ (pp. 60, 66).

In his later writings, principally in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (1983), Lyotard adopted a rather different approach. In this text, he develops a conventionalist philosophy of language which works in terms of what he calls ‘phrases’ and ‘genres’. A ‘phrase’ can be any form of utterance and is composed of four ‘instances’ (an addressor, an addressee, a sense and a referent) (section 25). It is not necessary that all of the instances be ‘marked’ (i.e. that there be a named addressor or addressee, a determined sense, or a designated referent) in order for a phrase to function. Every phrase presents a ‘phrase universe’, and determines the nature of each universe according to the way in which each of the four ‘instances’ that constitute it function in relation to one another (section 28). There are many different kinds of phrases, e.g. cognitive, aesthetic, ethical, political. Lyotard characterises each of these phrases as belonging to different ‘phrase regimens’. Phrases belonging to different regimens are heterogeneous and, cannot therefore be translated into one another (section 178).

Genres of discourse differ from regimens in that they provide rules for linking phrases together in particular ways according to particular purposes (sections 179ff). Significantly, it is not possible to validate any genre of discourse from outside itself by way of resorting to a meta-language. It therefore follows that, just as the cognitive phrase regimen is one regimen among many, the cognitive genre is likewise merely one among many genres. The legitimation of genres is therefore a matter of internal consistency and cannot be deduced from any position external to them. Regimens, in contrast to genres, do not stipulate rules of linking. They are non-teleological and contain the ‘rules of formation’ whereby a phrase can be characterised as being cognitive, ostensive, etc. But these rules in no way prescribe which phrase from which regimen ought next to be linked onto the preceding phrase. Linking, it follows, is necessary; but how to link is contingent (section 136). It is hence impossible to assert legitimately from a position outside the cognitive genre that one ought to link on to a cognitive phrase with another compatible with the rules of that genre. In a manner akin to The Postmodern Condition, this argument precludes any establishment of meta-narratives external to the cultural conditions under which genres are formulated and put into practice.

What Lyotard does attempt to make room for, however, are those instances of phrases which cannot be voiced within a particular genre. Such phrases would be the phrases of victims who, because of the way in which genres operate, are silenced by them. These phrases Lyotard terms ‘differends’. A differend is thus characterised as ‘a damage accompanied by the loss of means to prove the damage’ (section 7). Lyotard here gives the example of a French citizen who is a Martinican: such a person cannot complain about the possible wrongs they may suffer as a result of being a French citizen because the genre of French law, as the only genre in which such a complaint could be lodged, prevents the possibility of making it. A differend is thus ‘the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be put into phrases cannot yet be’ (section 22). In arguing that such phrases must be phrased (as a matter of principle), The Differend announces its ethical concerns — and these concerns are presented in terms of the proper goal of culture. ‘Culture’, Lyotard argues in a manner once again reminiscent of The Postmodern Condition, has come to mean ‘the putting into circulation of information rather than the work that needs to be done in order to arrive at presenting what is not presentable under the circumstances’ (1993, p. 260). With this statement one may conclude that Lyotard’s later work, in so far as it establishes its own stakes in terms of arguing for the need to voice differends, conceives of right in terms of a view of culture voiced as far back as 1962, in the essay ‘Dead Letter’: ‘Culture is lending an ear to what strives to be said, culture is giving a voice to those who do not have a voice and whom seek one’ (1993, p. 33).

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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