Jean-François Lyotard: “Le Différend,” Part Two

The Différend (1983) as “The Postmodern Condition, Part Two”

Defining the Différend

Although Le Différend was the natural outcome of The Postmodern Condition, this book is also an overt return to politics and a reassertion of a life-long concern with justice for those oppressed by the meta-narrative on the part of Jean-François Lyotard. The philosopher grew up during the Second World War under Nazi occupation and because France surrendered, he, like many of his generation, was spared military duty. The invasion of the Allies in June 1944 interrupted what he described as a “poetic, introspective and solitary way of thinking and living,” and his closest brush with the War was his service providing first aid during the fight to liberate Paris in 1944. Without the wartime disruptions that German or English of American men experienced, Lyotard was able to proceed with his life, marrying at age twenty four and fathering two children before he achieved his Docteur ès lettres in 1971. The War had shaken his earlier intellectual adherence to “indifference,” but his early work was indebted to the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who had a rather too close relationship with the Nazi Party and the Nazi ideology.

Lyotard’s acceptance of Heidegger was common among French philosophers, and nothing measures the journey he took better than the distance between La Phénoménologie of 1954 and Le Différend of 1983, which is informed by Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, Holocaust survivor. During this journey, Lyotard had become a committed Marxist and then a disillusioned Marxist and finally a philosopher who wrote, on occasion, politically activist works. Written in the midst of a public debate in Germany and France on how the history of the Holocaust should be written, Le Différend picked up the sub-text of oppression and silencing embedded in The Postmodern Condition and foregrounds what was a contest among academics and scientists for what constitutes “knowledge,” and shifts the ground to a question more highly charged: under what conditions is one party utterly silenced and what are the consequences? The meta-narrative is untenable, therefore, not just because it can no longer be believed, but because it is also terroristic. However, this narrative totalitarian can be countered by what Lyotard called “critical pragmatics,” or replacing the universal with the situational, or the pragmatic narrative, which legitimates itself simple through performativity or presentation.

The local and the specific (as opposed to the universal) now replace the narrative and is dubbed “the phrase” by Lyotard to denote its fragmentariness. Geoff Bennington pointed out in Lyotard: Writing the Event (1988) that the term “phrase” could be translated as “sentence.” In other words, a sentence (phrase) is a unity but is not also a part of a larger whole or narrative. Lyotard wrote of “phrases in dispute” or phrases (fragments) that cannot communicate with each other. He made the distinction between “negotiation,” in which both parties are allowed voice and “litigation” which is a language game that enforces silence upon the aggrieved party in order to empower larger forces, such as the state or the system. What if one cannot present? What if one is not allowed to speak? Lyotard recognized that political injustice and social silencing can operate with in the (idealized) language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lyotard borrowed what was, for Wittgenstein, a philosophical concept, and transformed the language game into the political. The language games have rules but the rules are hardly equitable and are built upon the “system” which empowers some and disempowers others. Into the language game, Lyotard interjected the phrase or the fragment, the fact of “it happens” that refers to the event as a “pure happening.” In other words, the phrase or event being fragmentary or singular cannot fit neatly into a metanarrative and points to the inherent injustice embedded in language.

Lyotard’s philosophy of phrases is called the différend, a play on the concept of “different,” indicating the “other” or something else, a variation or a disruption that that resists unification with a larger story. The différend is an ungovernable phrase and, although these phrases can be extended in a series, one linked to the next, the process of linking reveals difference/s among the phrases (sentences), or that which cannot be assimilated. Being part of litigation, not negotiation, the différend is that which stands alone. When foregrounded and recognized (a situation not always guaranteed) the différend is, and reveals itself to be, a unrepentant point of disagreement or dispute between at least two radically heterogeneous or opposing or incommensurable language games. In other words, the two speakers cannot speak to one another. There are rules in the game, which disadvantage one and favor the other. For example, a courtroom is an arena where a certain kind of restrictive language game is played under the guise (disguise) of being adversarial. In a rape case, the victim is presumed guilty and is silenced through questioning. A victim of discrimination has no legal standing in court if the court announces that discrimination does not exist. Language games, then, are exercises that are quite separate from the “truth” or reality.

The différend is a term based in the judicial concept of “obligation:” one party has a grievance and the tribunal (court) has the obligation to hear that grievance. However, the party which has been wronged cannot speak except in the language of the one who has caused the harm. Immediately, as has been seen, when the aggrieved one attempts to use the language of the oppressor, then the “obligation” vanishes. In other words, to assert “I have been discriminated against and here are the instances of discrimination” is to borrow a phrase that results in the speaker replying, “You are speaking, therefore, you are not being discriminated against,” and the victim is silenced. As Bennington noted, the victim is then forced to retreat into mysticism (or the irrational) and say something like “No one should be discriminated against,” which is true but non-functional within the rules of the tribunal.

It is possible to play a language game and substitute it for accurate history, a practice that, in France, was called “negationism.” As Stephen E. Atkins pointed out in Holocaust Denial as an International Movement (2009), the leading Holocaust denier in France was Robert Faurisson, the best known negator in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Faurison was the chief protagonist of Lyotard in Le Différend, which is a direct response to the denier’s claims (games). The game of denying the Holocaust had been going on for thirty years when Faurisson used linguistic slight of hand to erase the event, making historically meaningless claims but linguistically clever moves, such as pointing to the fact that extermination could not be “proved” because no victims had come forward. For Faurisson, the silence of the dead meant that no witness to the effect of extermination can come forward and therefore ispo facto the Holocaust never happened. For Lyotard, the silence in the death chambers that followed the screams is a phrase in and of itself. But how can a silence become a sentence in philosophy?


Auschwitz Today

Lyotard, who had earlier discussed the haunting of the written text by a visual figure in Discours, Figure (1971), used the Polish death camp, “Auschwitz” as an image, a traumatic memory that had become the most prevalent model (figure) of a name that functions figuraly or as a figure, because “Auschwitz” escapes conceptualization and expression within the usual rules of the language game. There is a connection between Lyotard’s announcement of the end of the metanarrative and his studies of the Holocaust, and the tie that binds his works together, from his early work on the figural to Le Différend, is his interrogation of authority and his interrogation of the possibility of representation. The Metanarratives of Modernism always supposed the possibility of representation, but Postmodernism resisted or refused the comfort of a position of authority or the assurance of a conscious stance or a position of knowledge, whether it be a critique or a historical survey.

A Postmodern analysis, from Lyotard’s perspective, considered the Figure, which is smuggled into the Narrative under the guise of “narrativity,” an anachronism in history. A form of a Figure would be “Progress,” a trope, which disguised disruptions and schisms in time in favor of picturing or imaging an unbroken chain of evolution and development moving along a teleological line. The Event, which occurs at a specific time, will disturb the flow of the “historical narrative.” Suddenly there is a disruption that inserts a very specific temporal event into/onto the “time line,” but history can be written only if such “events” are effaced. The excess of the “event” must be dealt with. In the case of the Holocaust, the “event” can be denied. Or the Holocaust can be written as a narrative, even as a regulating narrative, designed to produce a consensus. The next question or the more profound question then becomes, how can the Holocaust be written without desecrating the dead and disturbing their silence?

In writing the Holocaust, one incorporates the Holocaust into the larger flow of historical events, and its singularity is refuted. Because it is incorporated into the (meta)narrative, the happening can the be represented and reduced to a commodity that can be exchanged because it has been leveled. At that point the Event ceases to be an event. The Historians’ Controversy in Germany was an attempt to “normalize” or level the Event (the Holocaust) into a flattened time line, while in France, the efforts went to denying the Event (the Holocaust). Regardless of the motives of the historians in the 1980s, the refusal of the Event as an event was a reaction to the fact that the event itself was an excess that disrupted the traditional historical framing devices. If as Loytard stated, “The event is the occurrence after which nothing will ever be the same again,” then history is halted and the problem becomes one of how to write the event and how to restart history itself.

The discussion of the Event, the différend, and Auschwitz will continue in the next post, Part Three.

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Jean-François Lyotard: “The Postmodern Condition,” Part Two


The Postmodern Condition: Part Two

“In contemporary society and culture–postindustrial society, postmodern culture–the question of legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

When The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge appeared in print in 1979, it was in response to a request from the Conseil des Universités in Quebec to a famous famous French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, an authority on epistemology, to “report” on the state of “knowledge” now that the University was entering in to the computer age. The request and the commission was an extraordinary one, almost ahead of its time. It would be more than ten years, for example, before the Bibliothéque Nationale would computerize its vast holdings. The personal computer was a kit for hobbyists, and in 1979, BASIC programming language was only four years old. When Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak introduced the Apple II in 1977, it was difficult to imagine what the average person would do with such technology. The infamous and famously expensive “Lisa” model of the personal computer was still four years in the future, when Lyotard published this book. And yet, he appears to have grasped, as did the clients in Quebec, that the computer (in the abstract) would change knowledge and it was his appointed task to figure out how and what the consequences would be.

As was pointed out in the first part of this series, Lyotard disposed of the “old” vision of knowledge as a metanarrative, some kind of expansive explanation that encompassed all questions and presented all the answers. The mere idea that there could be a metanarrative had died over the early decades of the 20th century as the Enlightenment and its children, from Idealism to Marxism, proved inadequate to the actual workings of history and incapable of adequately explaining postmodern events. Out of the smoking ruins of atomic warfare and the painful memories of the Holocaust, where language was reduced to silence, Lyotard proposed that in the place of metanarratives, there would be “little narratives,” which could only be local and never overarching. However, if narratives are now small and contextual, then without the metanarrative, the problem of legitimation arises. The metanarrative/s had been legitimated by metadiscourses and supported by leading thinkers or by the state, but upon the collapse of such narratives, a new “condition” for or new epistemology of knowledge had to be established.

Given that the client was a group of universities, it should come as no surprise that The Postmodern Condition is about education, and predictably, the most extensive discussions of this book can be found in the field of, not so much philosophy but, education. Lyotard de-idealized the role of the university and reevaluated the place of learning in an age of what he termed “pragmatism” in which people would be educated so that they could “perform” or fulfill the needs of the society. Society, Lyotard explained, is not “organic” or natural but, because of technological advances in cybernetics made during the Second World War, contemporary social structures have evolved into “systems.” Indeed Lyotard compared society to “a giant machine.” “The true goal of the system,” he stated, “the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output–in other words, performativity.”Lyotard understood that, in this system, the university would serve and produce two kinds of students, the “professional intelligentsia” and the “technical intelligentsia.” If the goal is to “improve the system’s performance,” then knowledge can no longer be presented as metanarrataives or in chunks, or en bloc, as Lyotard put it, then knowledge must be broken down into useful and directed units, “served à la carte to adults” for purely practical purposes.


But there is more, if the university which serves the perforative needs of society and in a society where knowledge is information and information is easily stored in computer data bases, then all knowledge/information must be leveled for the purposes of being efficiently dispensed. “To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students’ disposal.” Then Lyotard, having delivered a death sentence to the university professor, amusing reassures, “Pedagogy would not necessarily suffer. The students would still have to be taught something; not contents, but how to use terminals.”Once again, the philosopher was astonishingly predictive–foreseeing the logical end to the classroom lecture and the end of the usefulness of imparting knowledge through personal delivery, and suggesting what is today the coming future of education, the coming change called “Massive Open Online Courses.” More painfully Lyotard did not shrink from “sounding the death knell of the age of the Professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmuting established knowledge..”

The new system, driven by machines and technology–computers and technology–is not only based upon optimal performance geared to maximum efficiency but is also based in information, which now becomes “knowledge.” Knowledge for the sake of knowledge and education for the sake of learning was now outmoded and people need to be trained specifically to be of use within the system. This “theocratic” system does not care about or take into account what individuals–now discounted along with the “self”–want or need.“The self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before,” Lyotard said.

If society was once imagined to be about the “self,” a metanarrative in itself, then the question becomes what does this new kind of social system demand of its denizens? What the system cares about, needs, demands, is performativity. More important is who runs (owns) or rules this system; in other words, who is in charge of information (knowledge)? “Increasingly, the central question is becoming who will have access to that information these machines must have in storage to guarantee that the right decisions are made. Access to data is, and will continue to be, the prerogative of experts of all stripes. The ruling class is and will continue to be the class of decision makers,”Lyotard predicted.

From our vantage point of almost four decades later, it seem possible that the philosopher could not grasp (like the inventors of the computers) the important changes that ownership of the personal computers by individuals (selves) would make, breaking the total control of access to data. But he did foresee the dangers of a single entity (the state) controlling access to information, for information, Lyotard grasped, was power. The postmodern condition of knowledge is complex and multifaceted, for it has become not a question of gathering and mastering data but of competence, including “notions of ‘know-how,’ ‘knowing how to live,’ how to listen’ (savior-faire, savior-vivre, savoit-écouter)” Lyotard pointed out that in this new system-based society knowledge-as-information the nature of the game has changed. “ a society whose communication component is becoming more prominent day by day, both as a reality and as an issue, it is clear that language assumes a new importance.”

And Lyotard has a larger point to make, for, in the past, knowledge was produced and contained within the prevailing metanarrative, but once the metanarrative has fallen, then it must be acknowledged that knowledge (information) has always been created within language games and, in addition, it is now true that knowledge can be legitimated only through these games which are “played” through narration, or speaking, uttering, creating discourse. But who is allowed to narrate/speak? What is the criteria of competence? “..the language game known to the West as the question of legitimacy–or rather, legitimacy as a referent in the game in inquiry. Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has to right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture,they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do.” Thus the decline of the “lost narrative” became a crisis in legitimation.

Lyotard’s way out of the bottle of legitimation, so to speak, was to strike the “meta” and replace it with the “little” or local narrative and in order to establish even a little narrative, an intermediary step needed to be taken, a new set of rules needed to be established. The metanarrative, now extinguished by incredulity, would be replaced by the language games of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The language game, or language itself, rises to the foreground in societies that value information systems. These necessarily agonistic language games, in which utterances (knowledge) are given and received and acknowledged, are governed by contextual (local) rules. The agreed-upon rules exist through the consent of the players who are positioned in a confrontational (agonistic) relationship and any utterances made outside of the rules do not “count.” In other words, as in chess, language games have moves and one moves (utters, speaks) within the existing restraints. That said, there is room for critique or paralogy within the structure by making an unexpected move that is within but challenges the language game, changing the game. Legitimation is forged, not out of narration or seizing the “right” to speak, but by being a skillful player, and this idea of optimal performativity, when applied to language games, becomes a legitimating tool.

here are consequences to playing the language games, which now replace the metanarrative and the implications of the new means (games) of conflating knowledge with performativity will be discussed in Part Three of the series.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Historical Context of Postmodernism, Part Two


Part Two

Defining Postmodernism is a difficult process. Even though it is now fashionable to declare Postmodernism as “dead” or “over,” one should proceed with caution before burying the body. Unlike Modernism, which emerged from the Enlightenment hundreds of years ago, Postmodern ideas are essentially a mid century phenomenon, meaning that the entire body of knowledge is only sixty odd years old. We do not yet have the kind of historical perspective on Postmodernism that allows a single compact definition. Postmodernism was not just an academic event, the purview of ivory tower academics, it was also a cultural event that expanded beyond its European origins to the new global society.

The intellectuals, for all their removed condition, predicted with astonishing perception the impact of Postmodernism upon society. It should be emphasized that one of the first and most significant elucidators of Postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard wrote his diagnosis in response to technological changes and how the computerized societies of the twentieth century have impacted the legitimation of knowledge. The Report was commissioned in the late 1970s by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government in order to assess the confluence of computer technology, science and knowledge—how in this new age was knowledge be formed? Lyotard’s answers would be not only precise but prophetic.

As Lyotard stated,

I will use the term modem to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the her- meneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.

He continued,

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity toward meranarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in rum presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the mctanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds; most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it.

Although Lyotard correctly pointed to the end of the “metanarrative,” or the one overarching tale that explains everything, this metanarrative had spawned metanarratives for each intellectual, social, political and cultural field. The metanarrative implies as “master narrative,” or an idea that masters both nature and culture. One of the first tasks of Postmodern thinkers was to interrogate and dismantle the metanarrataive of the Enlightenment. In philosophy, this reexamination consisted of re-reading and re-writing the entire philosophical project of the eighteenth century. In art, the metanarrative was called “Modernism” and referred to a particular aspect of art, called avant-garde, that stemmed from the painting of Édouard Manet and the urban culture in Paris.

This metanarrative, like all metanarratives, was only as strong as what it excluded and what forms of art making were pushed aside to make room for a seamless story. As previous posts pointed out, the metanarrative of Modernism began to break down in the mid 1950s as new ideas about what art could be began to be exhibited. Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Minimal Art and Conceptual Art and Feminist Art and Pluralism all contained elements or aspects of Postmodernism and contributed to the demise of Modernism.

The art world did not systematically begin to examine Postmodern theory until the 1980s when it became obvious that the succession of movements and “isms” had ceased. Clearly, the idea that art evolves in one singular straight line was no longer tenable. Once authority had been questioned and it was evident that there was no single ruling intellectual or artistic force, Modernism was replaced by Postmodernism. It is important to understand that the art world comprehension of Postmodernism was somewhat limited and crude. Postmodernism was understood as an old-fashioned dialectic (one of the models questioned by Postmodern thinkers) as an oppositional force to Modernism.

Modernism was based upon a set of social, political and philosophical assumptions which were embedded in the Enlightenment. These assumptions were essentially optimistic: human beings would improve as they elevated themselves politically and economically through social equality. People, ordinary people, could come together and govern themselves for their mutual benefit. As history moved forward, now that they were in charge of their own destinies, people would also progress morally and ethically.

History proved this optimistic hypothesis to be wrong. Far from improving humanity, modern technology merely allowed people to kill each other more efficiently. After the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the mood after (or “post”) the war was pessimistic. It was clear that a line had been crossed and that an era had come to an end. Humanity had revealed itself to be fatally flawed and trust in the good will of people had been lost. Although the sense of failure and disillusionment had yet to be named, Modernism had come to an end in the rubble and terror “after Auschwitz.”

The optimistic and progressive metanarrative of Modernism hid another assumption: that everyone agreed that the social and political principles of the Enlightenment were superior to all other philosophical systems. The Enlightenment was Eurocentric, secular, and, in favoring “progress,” left tradition behind, but not all societies agreed with this forward thrust into the “modern.” The Second World War shattered the illusion that there could be one objective truth, the truth of the science and philosophy of the Enlightenment. The only truth was that there was no truth.

Germany refused the onrush to the modern and substituted social hysteria and cultural subjectivity for scientific thinking. The Myth of the Third Reich was an alternative “truth”–the Nazi narrative of the way the world should be. Japan also rejected the Eurocentric extension of power into Asia and substituted its own cultural imperatives for the Enlightenment principles of progress. Twenty years after the Second World War, the nations of the Middle East also rejected modernity and its insistence on gender and class equality and enlightened secularism. In other words, the metanarrative of the Enlightenment which purported to be based on the objective and provable truth of science would be met with a refusal to accept that imposed imperative. In the post-war period, it became clear that subjectivity or local narratives had dislodged the certainty of the eighteenth century and “post” modern doubt was dominant.

The Enlightenment itself was a belief system—it substituted a belief in religion with a belief in human reason. Faced with the extremes of historical conditions, the powers of the human intellect had broken down, revealing the dark side of the mind as the European culture descended into an irrational madness. It is important to note that Postmodernism was a European invention and not an American one because it was Europe that experienced the worst effects of the Second World War. Instead of creating a continent of free people, the War had cut Europe in half, condemning the eastern nations to lives of autocratic arbitrary rule.

In the free zone, the Cold War stifled real political and social progress. In the west, the forces of the status quo had a firm hold but there were those who hoped for change. By the 1960s, idealism evaporated after the uneasy Spring of student uprisings and the reassertion of dogmatic authority, and the European intellectuals simply lost their belief in the revolutionary process that should had led to greater emancipation. Once the grand idée was dead, unity was impossible and philosophers sheltered themselves into small conclaves of thought. This disunity signified and end of “meaning” as a singular belief system. The permanent modernist revolution gave way to a Postmodern critique of the Enlightenment as if to find out how the culture could have gone so far astray from its initial promise.

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Comparing Modernism and Postmodernism


From “Either/Or” to “Both/And”

In Europe Postmodernism was a serious expression of the agony that follows the loss of hope, but in America, Postmodernism was understood in a far more shallow fashion, as a rejection of the Modernist avant-garde art. The Modernist artist had been experimental, on the cutting edge, forward, even future oriented. Always a step ahead of the art audience, the avant-garde artist was part of an elite group which had a vision of new art. In order to go forward, the artist had to reject the past; in order to be new, the old had to be banished. The rather dogmatic and uncompromising stance was fueled by the belief that the artist was a god-like creator of new forms. This genius made art out of self-referentiality, out of his/her own subjective personality. Despised by the uncomprehending public, the heroic artist stood alone, morally pure in the assertion of absolute originality.

The Postmodern artist rejected the notion of the eternal “new,” called “the tradition of the new” by Harold Rosenberg. Living in an image world which flattened out all art forms into a non-hierarchical equality, the Postmodern artist did not bother to create new art. Indeed, the Postmodern artist knew too much; creativity was impossible. This new artist borrowed, quoted, playing the role of bricouleur or scavenger, rejecting wholeness and order for hybridity and chaos. Postmodern play overtook Modernist order, and perfection, purity, and clarity became pluralism.

If Modernism is reductive, striving towards abstraction and purity, then Postmodernism is complex, composed of multiple elements, none of which is new or unique. Therefore the analytic mood of Modernism which is disposed to critique gives way to a synthetic approach with is non-hierarchical and accepting of all aspects of art, from high to low. The modernist work of art is a “work,” bounded and centered, unified by a singular meaning—an art meaning. The Postmodern work is not a “work” but a “text,” a product of intertextuality, the promiscuous and excessive references to something surplus, gesturing beyond a text that depends upon a network of relationships. With Postmodernism, art becomes bricolage.

The result of hybridity and intertextuality is that the Postmodern text is never and cannot be independent or autonomous. While the Modern work of art is a universe, complete unto itself, the Postmodern object is always relative and contingent, where the artist is never the subject, only the agent pursuing an activity. Thus there is always an implied narrative to Postmodernism, which is historicist, referring to and borrowing from the past, piling on elements to create a allegory. Because it is an already-written pastiche, allegory is the Postmodern art form par excellence.

Postmodern art is an art of content. While Modernist art stressed form and the formal elements on the surface, Postmodernism inverts the role of “surface.” “Surface” for Modernist art is of supreme importance, it is the site where the battle for artistic autonomy and freedom was played out in the name of the right to paint in a personal and individual fashion. For Modernist philosophy, however, surface is the mere beginning and it was assumed that a Modernist work of art concealed a deep and hidden meaning, discernible and discoverable by “close reading.” For Postmodernism, the surface is all there is. Once Postmodernism refused the myth of origin, then there is no depth. If there is no origin, there is only surface, an endless plain of texts, all available for use by the Postmodern bricoleur.

Modernism assumed a kind of ultimately knowable totality of knowledge and truth. Any contradictions would eventually be resolved by more knowledge, because the intellectual’s position was outside the discourse. If one could get outside the discursive formation, then one could judge and critique its content. But for Postmodernism, there is no transcendent position “outside the text.” Far from being omnipotent, the Postmodern thinker is enmeshed in a tangle of texts from which there is no escape. Self-knowledge or self-critique is impossible for there is no getting beyond the confines of language.

For Postmodernism, everything is already written and art is seen as language or information. Without a unified meaning confined within the work itself, incredulity reigns because all signs are double coded. Signifiers are gathered, not for the sake of affinity, but to stress difference. These signifiers are free-floating and attach themselves to any object arbitrarily. Despite the surplus of unmoored meaning, ironically, what is left of the ruins of Modernism is a strange kind of “wordlessness,” or the inability to say anything more or new or meaningful. Inner necessity is replaced with cynicism and pragmatism. Then end result is a loss of the sacred and an all-prevailing nihilism.

In the end, if Postmodernism is boundless and without depth, composed of nothing more than an endless supply of intertexual references, then Postmodernism is completely de-centered. The result is that the reader/viewer cannot locate him/herself: where are we? when are we? Past and present collide, resulting in a cultural schizophrenia. Technological advances co-exist with outmoded traditions and conservative attitudes. Rather than being absorbed in its own self-sufficiency, art theatrically performs the dramas of other ages, evoking art forms of times past. For the art world, there is a kind of slippage where attitude and art collide and create a formlessness from which on coherence can emerge. But incoherence was the logical/illogical fate of the Postmodern.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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