Jean-Francois Lyotard: “The Postmodern Condition,” Part Three


The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Part Three

In writing of Lyotard in relation to history, F. R. Ankersmi in his chapter “Historicism and Postmodernism: A Phenomenology of Human Experience,” referred to the philosopher’s “deplorably sketchy tale of the life and death of metanarratives.” Ankersmi continued, noting, that “Metanarratives traditionally served rather to delegitimize science rather than to legitimize it.” History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor is an old book, written in 1994, but Ankersmi’s critique has merit. As was pointed out in the previous post, Lyotard did not expend much energy explaining his thesis “the death of the metanarrative,” because, it was noted, this idea was already old and did not need further discussion. Ankersmi made the same point, indeed the metanarrative had already been throughly slain in previous decades by earlier philosophers. But it is worth noting before concluding the discussion on The Postmodern Condition that the narrative, meta or not, is based upon the speaking of denotative statements which represent reality or tell a story. Thus what Lyotard discussed in his book, which is certainly meandering and disorganized, is the death of representation. But like the metanarrative and its demise, he took for granted that the reader understood that the book was proceeding from a starting point that was after these deaths of representation and the metanarrative.

Lyotard stressed that, now that large narratives had lost their potency or usefulness, petit récits and their validity (not truth) would be based on performativity and the performativity would be demonstrated in the playful arena of language games. Of course, as Lyotard himself would acknowledge later in The Differend (1983), to play a language game, to make moves, “imaginatively” is to be an individual or a “self,” an entity of which he was suspicious, who makes a difference by making a new “move.” Lyotard said, “Given equal competence (no longer in the acquisition of knowledge, but in its production), what extra performativity depends on in the final analysis is ‘imagination’ which allows one other to make a new move or change the rules of the game.” And in The Differend, Lyotard separated himself from the ideas of Ludwig Wittgentstein. That which passes for knowledge in the age of Postmodernism is formed within language games, which are unavoidably agonistic and social. Lyotard understood that these “games” are anything but playful and that the consequences are serious and connected to power, which is now both proscriptive and system-based. “The decision makers,” he asserted, who attempt to manage “sociality” do so by “following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and thea the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power.”

Indeed, Lyotard pointed out that scientists, along with other (non-human) instruments, are “purchased” not for the purposes of finding the “truth,” but in order to serve the needs of power. The way out of these attempts to control knowledge/information is the language game, which not only provides a field of play where legitimation takes place but also presents opportunities for progress in science: “..there are two different kinds of ‘progress’ in knowledge: one corresponds to a new move (a new argument) within the established rules; the other, to the inanition of new rules, in other words, a change to a new game.” Later Lyotard explained further “..the best performativity..comes..from arranging the data in a new way..what new performativity depends on in the final analysis is ‘imagination,’ which allows one either to make a new move or change the rules of the game.”Individuals are not only in charge of the game, they also set the rules and assume responsibility for their moves or their utterances. In other words, he suggested, the game is everything and performance supersedes any old-fashioned dedication to finding the “truth” and speaking the truth in denotative sentences which form a narrative.


The performance of the game player begins to become the new epistemology. “What their ‘arrogance’ means is that they identify themselves with the social system conceived as a totality in quest of its most performative unity possible.” In addition, Lyotard assumed that these games are being held, so to speak, on an official or legitimate field, such as the scientific profession or the university. These sanctioned venues are also halls of power and Lyotard realized that much was at stake and that simply attempting to play the game and to present new findings or to take a new approach or to make a new “move” was often insufficient against those who held the reins of power. Lyotard made one of his strongest statements, criticizing the ways in which language games can be played by vested interests:

“Countless scientists have seen their ‘move’ ignored or repressed, sometimes for decades, because it too abruptly destabilized the accepted positions, not only in the university and scientific hierarchy, but also in the problematic. The stronger the ‘move’ the more likely it is to be denied the minimum consensus, precisely because it changes the rules of the game upon which consensus had been based..Such behavior is terrorist..By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player form the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent someone from playing). The decision makers’ arrogance, which in principle has no equivalent in the sciences consists in the exercise of terror. It says: ‘Adapt your aspirations to our ends–or else.'”

At the time he was writing, Lyotard could see only one way out of the trap of the system that valued conformity over the innovations proffered by language games and that escape route was a “move” he termed paralogy. Paralogy, Gordon C. F. Bearn pointed out in his essay “Pointlessness and the University of Beauty,” is a critique that challenges the notion that the system is stable and produces, as a result, discord and “catastrophe,” as Lyotard put it. Writing for the anthology, Just Education (this essay also appears in Jean-François Lyotard: Ethics), Bearn noted that this notion of upheaval is present in Kant’s idea of an “invalid conclusion” and eloquently wrote that the system “inevitably throws off word and deeds which exceed the system, which do not quite make sense, and therefore these inevitable paralogical effects express the inevitable plasticity which is the essence of the system.” In other words, paralogy is a critique of the system, probing its weak points, seeking places where logic or practice falters and foregrounds the ultimate logic of its stated goals. Lyotard was led to the conclusion that, referring to paralogy, “It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, which expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as its basic difference understood as paralogy.”

Paralogy, Lyotard pointed out, “is a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge.” For Lyotard, paralogy was the necessary antidote to the structure of the system in which two competing language games confront each other. One could conceive of paralogy as a third party intervention inserted between two theses, a third way or an alternative, which does not offer a synthesis but a deconstruction of the system itself. Rubbing against the grain, paralogy brings attention to built in differences in power: there are those who are silenced (violently through terror) by language games that borrow (a canny move) the metadiscourse of universality to become dominant. Although Lyotard was interested in language games and their role in the construction of knowledge, he was not concerned with actual groups locked out of the system. That said, paralogy and its critical and invasive practices suggests that those who have been silenced or displaced might at some point find a role in a language game.

Indeed, the decades that have passed since Lyotard attempted to imagine the fate of knowledge in the postmodern era, it has become clear that the “condition” he predicted has, in fact, come true. On one hand, he foresaw correctly that the system of education and its home, the university, has resisted change, even for the sake of performance. Professors have not been replaced by computer terminals and corporations, calling themselves “databases,” have sprung up to contain knowledge and convert its distribution into cash for the service of redistributing the already distributed. Thousands of hapless students, laden with debt, graduate with degrees that reflect the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of acquiring knowledge and not the needs of the real world, graduate each year with increasingly dismal prospects. The language games are still played within the confines of the system and the rules are rigorously enforced, silencing, through various acts of terror, those who would question its control.

The benefits of a postmodern world where knowledge is digitized and spewed out of a computer is that, as Lyotard stated, multiple “little narratives” have sprung forward, whether on the Internet or on cable television stations or on international networks of information sharing. The amount of information available today is truly stunning, bringing a new meaning to the old word “enlightenment.” Knowledge has escaped the classroom and is popularized and dispensed throughout the infotainment sites of television and the Web. But another aspect of language games has also emerged–considered in passing by Lyotard–that which masquerades as knowledge, because this game follows the rules, or because the players change the rules of the game. The game which was meant to produce knowledge can be turned against the knowledge producers. Discourses, which are built on complete fabrication, now jostle confidently with actual proved and accepted science or co-exist with recorded facts and sanctioned discourses. Importantly, these untruthful and false discourses are not examples of paralogy, which is always a critique which provides a viable alternative, but examples of parallel language games that hijack the appearance of and the rules of existing and substantive and legitimated language games to put forward an alternative “little narrative.”

What Lyotard presented in The Postmodern Condition was not just a “report” on the future of education but also a road map for this future. An analysis of Lyotard’s interpretation of the coming “condition” shows that his was a structure of an “if-then” scenario which was a logical and systematic pathway to the change that would inevitably come. This change called the “postmodern” was an inevitable alteration to education through the rise of petit récits which led to a marked transformation of the collective mindset. People began thinking of a new way of subverting the prevailing power structures, whether it was the rise of Napster which led to downloading music à-la-carte or the death of the Canon, there continues to be a “casual collapse” of traditional centralized authority. “Authority” whatever that means today, and “totalizing” systems, those that survive, have proved both resistant to change and inadequate at preventing the communal knitting of a new social fabric based on different rules, such as the “share economy.”

Perhaps the grand narratives of the Enlightenment are passé, but the grand narratives of control are still alive and well, from cable TV to “common core” in education. Because, as Lyotard correctly intuited, the digitization of knowledge would result in a leveling and an equalizing of information, these petit récits are now the “postmodern condition” and this postmodern condition continues to be also a crisis of legitimation. The silver lining in a period of continuing disruption is the new opportunities opening for new narratives, a new game board has unfolded for new language games, where the new rules are spelled out as “paralogy.”

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

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

[email protected]

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



The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)

A brief book, a small study, “an occasional one” that Lyotard himself did not consider either important or a work of philosophy, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) came to be his best-known and most referenced book for those seeking to “define” the Postmodern and its “condition.” Indeed, this is a remarkable little book: remarkable in that it is less about Postmodernism and more about knowledge, remarkable in that it was remarkably prescient in its predictions, and, therefore, remarkable in that the generation of the 21st century reads this book in a way quite different from those who read it in the 1980s. Written at the request of Quebec’s Conseil des Universités to re-consider knowledge in the new computer age, The Postmodern Condition is actually a book on science and how knowledge is formed and acquired and, most interestingly to us today, how this knowledge (conditioned by postmodernity) would be impacted by the new technologies of the computers.

For the Postmodern theorists reading Lyotard’s concise report for the first time, the discussions of computers was more abstract than real–after all, in the 1980s, personal computers were still uncommon and their potential was beyond the cognitive horizons of most academics of the period. Lyotard’s insights and predictions as to the impact of computer technology upon universities and learning were usually passed over in favor of his rather brief “definitions” of Postmodernism without taking note of precisely why and how his definition grew out of technology. Re-reading Lyotard from the future, so to speak, it is now possible to see The Postmodern Condition in an entirely new light–is computer technology the real “postmodern condition?” Experiencing the book is rather like entering the mind of Lyotard at a point when he was both looking backward and peering forward into the future. There are a few meanderings in the direction of the defender of Modernism, Jurgen Habermas, a pause to disagree on the question of Modernism vs. Postmodernism, now an old question in the post-postmodern era.

As though to point out the obvious and to establish the already established, Lyotard began the book with a now famous definition of Postmodernism: “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” This sentence is tossed casually into a short section on knowledge and its legitimation and reveals a Lyotard looking back and remarking on the fallen state of post-war culture, after the Holocaust, after imperialism, after the sciences had shaken the preexisting belief systems. Of all the Postmodern writers, perhaps he was the most political. With a career that dated back to the forties, Lyotard was an eyewitness to the Holocaust and to the end of French colonialism in Viet Nam and Algeria and to May 1968. One by one, the metanarratives of power and control came an end, totalitarianism (totalization) was (briefly) defeated, but the promise of Marxism as an alternative proved to be a delusion. For the post-war generation watching the crumbling of the comfortable sustaining narratives of received wisdom, the old stories could no longer be told and there was nothing left to believe in. Only science survived with any shred of authority.

Lyotard was criticized by some for not including culture or the humanities in his assessment of knowledge but culture is a metanarrative, history is a metanarrative and a scientist, he states, holds such tales in scorn, “Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children.” But because they purport to tell the “truth,” narratives are also dangerous: “We know its symptoms. It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilization. It is important to recognize its special tenor, which sets it apart from all other forms of imperialism: it is governed by the demand of legitimation.” Legitimation is difficult territory for Lyotard who saw a crisis in legitimation, a symptom, as he said, of the contamination of “metaknowledge” by the poison of ideology. As he recounted, “The speech Heidegger gave on May 27, 1933, on becoming rector of the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, can be read as an unfortunate episode in the history of legitimation.” Unlike many of his confrères, Lyotard was an unsparing critic of Martin Heidegger and held him accountable for the Nazi ideology that left its traces within his philosophy. Heidegger managed to slide back into the good graces of French intellectuals, return to his university, and far too quickly the waters of the present closed over his past and intellectual and moral crimes evaded memory.

In contrast, Lyotard was of a different generation, intensely aware of the historical disruptions that had taken place, ending the Enlightenment, ending imperialism, ending colonialism, ending hope, ending Modern philosophy. Like other Postmodern writers, Lyotard rejected the notion of the Western master narrative, which was a narrative of command and control; and, in fact, he is the philosopher associated with the pronouncement of the end of the grand récit or the grand narrative. The collapse of the over-arching narrative happened, not just because science had confronted faith but because it was no longer possible to “believe” in the discourses that had once ruled. Lyotard was left with one haunting question: “Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?” He continued, “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it redefines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy.” And paralogy–or the challenge of an alternate discourse–disorder–is at the heart of Lyotard’s solution to the end of the metanarrative, which, oddly to those who have heard so much of this word, will be mentioned only a few more times in the report.

So, if the book disposes of metanarratives briskly, puts the past aside, then what future is the book about? Lyotard carried out his charge: “Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is know as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age.” The post-war age ushered in a period that would be dominated by science and by scientists who worked with the huge primitive computers during the Second World War and wanted to continue to develop this new technology after the war. These were the scientists who imagined the Internet and understood that knowledge could be, and already was, being stored on computers. Those involved in computers, science, and technology understood the implications of computerized knowledge, and institutions of higher learning, many of which housed the massive computers, grappled with the future possibilities.


The Apple II of 1977, capable of playing games, processing words and operating spreadsheets.

Hence, when the universities of Quebec hired a philosopher to re-imagine knowledge for an age already bereft of metanarratives (faith), they brought on board a non-scientist who stated,

“These technological transformations can be expected to have a considerable impact on knowledge. Its two principal functions–research and the transmission of acquired learning–are already feeling the effect..The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation..We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language.”

As we pass into the second decade of the 21st century, we recognize that Lyotard foresaw the slow death of print publications and the rise of digital publishing, and in addition he provided the vocabulary for that will be deployed by current theorists, such as Axel Bruns (Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage of 2009).

“The relationship of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers of the commodities they produce and consume–that is form of value.” Lyotard predicted. Then he continued with a famous statement: “Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use value.'”

An incredulous Marxist, Lyotard feared now that knowledge had shifted its location (computers) the creation and accumulation of knowledge would move away from the control of the universities and would be under the rule of corporations, which he observed, were now “multinational.” Like Foucault, Lyotard understood that knowledge was power and he also realized that such corporations had “passed beyond the control of nation states.” In a post-war period that picked winners and losers, the wealthy nation states would have an advantage in the production and dissemination of this new kind of knowledge generated by computerization and that the poorer countries would be left behind, as receivers, producers or users. Lyotard feared that rich nations and powerful corporations would corner and command knowledge in order to retain their powers, fearing that computerized knowledge “could become the ‘dream’ instrument for controlling and regulating the market system..In that case, it would inevitably involve the use of terror.” The solution to this threat is “quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks.”

Lyotard considered that any form of control of knowledge was a form of violence and terror against intellectual freedom, using words, “violence” and “terror,” words that were strong and were laced with his past experiences with totalizing systems. For the current reader, these remarkable passages are early warnings of the fight to keep the Internet, a system that Lyotard did not live to see fully developed, free and open and accessible to it users on an equal basis. But in-between the pages where Lyotard announced the end of the metanarrative and the active participation of the public in the production (and control) of knowledge is his discussion of science/knowledge (information) and how knowledge can exist under the “postmodern condition” through language games. With a nod to Ludwig Wittgenstein, language games have the capacity to bring about counter narratives or “little narratives” or paralogy, which, as he said, was at the heart of postmodernism.

Part Two of this series on Jean-François Lyotard will discuss education in the computer age or the “postmodern condition.”

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

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

[email protected]