Jean-François Lyotard and the Sublime, Part One

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991)

Part One

The way in which the mind of Jean-François Lyotard worked was slow and systematic and thorough. The notion of the potential injustice in language games appeared in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) and was fully explored and applied to the Holocaust in The Differend (1983) where Lyotard brought up the Emmanuel Kant’s discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment (1790). Although almost two decades separate these two books, and Lyotard’s Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime continued a discussion on Kantian aesthetics that would culminate in a protracted encounter with the sublime in the avant-garde which played out in his late works. It is this culmination of the sublime into the avant-garde that has most interested contemporary writers who tend to avoid the more difficult work of 1991 in preference for the occasions where Lyotard wrote more directly of specific works of art. But, like most of Lyotard’s work, this book on the sublime has a long gestation.

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime was proceeded by several earlier books and by shattering political events that cast a shadow over much of Lyotard’s writing through the 1980s. The uprising of May 1968 seemed so significant at the time but, in retrospect, it is the aftermath of failure and a return to the “normalcy” of rule by Charles de Gaulle and the reactionary 198s0s that would inform Lyotard during that decade. Against this backdrop, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy held a seminar at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris and Lyotard, post his work on the “Postmodern Condition,” gave a paper called “Enthusiasm” in 1981 * and entered into his mature phrase. Post-Freud and post-Marx and post-May 1968 this short paper by Lyotard returned to Kant who attempted to interpret the ongoing French Revolution and the wave of feeling that swelled and filled Europe with a sense of political change and hope for the future as free people. Kant’s meditation on the “enthusiasm” that surrounded the Revolution was embedded in a small section in the Critique of Judgment, his chapter on the Analytic of the Sublime; and it is with this detail that Lyotard picks up a political discussion that led him to The Differend, which led him to Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime.

The intellectual journey of Lyotard to philosophy was a political one. In the beginning of Peregrinations. Law, Form, Event (1988), he explained witty that, due to his early marriage and fatherhood, becoming a monk was impossible, his next choice of vocation, art, was rendered moot due to “lack of talent,” and, finally, his desire to be a historian was thwarted by a weak memory. Philosophy was his last choice, and Lyotard spent years as a civil servant teaching high school students in France, but he gave up all but political writing in the service of the forthcoming Marxist revolution. In a way, it was the collapse of the “Days of May” that sealed the fate of Lyotard to evolve into a philosopher who sough a way to reenter politics without being (too overtly) political. The Critique of Judgment was a far more political document than the Critique of Practical Reason within Kant’s oeuvre, but his thoughts on politics never resolved themselves into a fourth book on, say Political Reason. On one level what Lyotard was attempting to do was to write a Kantian fourth critique, a political one in which political theory was elevated to the level of a philosophical critique. The former road for political critique, Marxism, seemed less clear, but Kantian thinking provided a higher ground from which to consider politics.

It is very Lyotardian to prepare the way to a new work over a period of years, moving from one territory to the other, and it was this 1991 excursion into the dusty and neglected topic of the sublime (and the beautiful) that shook aesthetics out of its formalist slumber. The problems Lyotard faced in returning to Kant were extensive, for fully two centuries had passed since the 18th century philosopher attempted to synthesize and surpass the earlier tentative writings on aesthetics. The 20th century philosopher re-entered Kant through the path of the “event.” The event of his century was, for Lyotard, the Holocaust, the event that stopped history and forced subsequent “history” to be written in a different fashion. The event of his century was, for Kant, the French Revolution. What connects these two “events” was that both were apocalyptical–both ended in disaster–and neither was witnessed nor experienced by the philosophers. However, what pulls the events apart was the fact that the French Revolution was a deliberate spectacle with thousands of witnesses and the Holocaust produced, not witnesses, as Lyotard asserted, but victims and perpetuators, both equally silent.


The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

Lyotard explained the Kantian concept of the Event, which is a “sign of history,” residing as part of but beyond the narrative of history, by writing

..what Kant called a Begebenheit, an event or “act of delivering itself which would also be an act of deliverance, a deal (une donne), if you will..The sought-after Begebenheit would have the task of “presenting’ free causality according to the three temporal directions of past, present, and future. What is this enigmatic, if not contradictory, “act of delivering itself?”

Kant’s event, Lyotard reported in Le Differend, was not a “momentous deed” or a revolution. The event, Kant asserted

“ simply the mode of thinking (Denksugnsart) of the spectators (Zuschauer) which betrays itself (such verrät) publicly (öffentlich) in this game of great upheavals (Umwandlungen, such as revolutions), and manifest switch a universal, yet disinterested sympathy (Teilnehmung) for the players on one side against those on the other..Owing to its universality, this mode of thinking demonstrates (beweist) a character of he human race at large and all at once, and owing to its disinterestedness, a moral (moralisch) character of humanity, at least in its predisposition (Anlage), a character which not only permits people to hope for progress toward the better, but is already itself progress insofar as its capacity is sufficient for the present.

Despite the disasters of the Terror and the Final Solution, these Events started the Modern and the Postmodern respectively. The French Revolution gave rise, despite the bloodbaths and rolling heads in city squares, to the Modern era and both responded to and gave rise to modern philosophy, while the Holocaust brought all the hopeful optimism of modernity crashing down. In a general sense, in Lyotard’s différend, the Holocaust is sublime because it defied comprehension, but he continued his discussion of the sublime in The Differend through the avenue of “enthusiasm” or Kant’s way of trying to understand the “feeling” of the French Revolution. The odd word, “enthusiasm,” was intended to connote the sense of being caught up in an “event” that was stronger than any one human being who might be swept up in the hope of the Revolution. Notably, Kant wrote the Third Critique years before the Terror broke out, so this sublime feeling of an enthusiastic response to the spontaneous outbreak of proletariat rebellion, like May 1868, utterly failed when Napoléon became Emperor. In his extended discussion of Kant in this book, Lyotard wrote that

Enthusiasm is a modality of the feeling of the sublime. The imagination tries to supply a direct, sensible presentation for an Idea of reason (for the whole is an object of an Idea, as for example, in the whole of practical, reasonable beings). It does not succeed and it thereby feels its impotence, but at the same time, it discovers its destination, which is to bring itself into harmony with the Ideas of reason through an appropriate presentation.

Kant’s Third Critique attempted to deal with judgment over human conditions and situations that defied reason and involved the domain of feelings, or what we today could call psychology, but which cannot be reduced to personal reactions and must be brought into the realm of universal judgment. This in-between zone, between the pure and the practical, needed its own critique in which Kant sought to investigate the grounds for judgment where the elements are indeterminate. There are certain objects (art) that give rise to feelings of pleasure, but there are experiences that give rise to displeasure, a level of displeasure that,when it exceeds the pleasure of agreeable beauty, is called the “sublime.” In the typical Modernist fashion, there is a structured binary, suggesting that the beautiful and the sublime can be contrasted along the lines of pleasure/displeasure or weak/strong and so on, but Lyotard seized upon a small part of the Critique, the Analytic of the Sublime and, within that section, one concept “enthusiasm.”

The feeling of enthusiasm was, par excellence, the experience of the sublime, sublime because the feeling could not be presented. The inability to present is related to the fundamental incompatibilities within the sublime itself, a clash between an intensity of pleasure that becomes pain. Enthusiasm is a knife edge sensation that teeters on the verge of what Kant called “dementia” or a kind of insanity, hence his odd insistence on disinterested sympathy, as a bulwark against a fall into madness, which is exactly what happened in France during the Terror. Despite the excesses of the French Revolution, the spectacle of the Fall of the Bastille, the drama of the Oath of the Tennis Court and the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man excited the imagination of those level-headed (disinterested) enough to see to the future. In other words, the Event of the French Revolution was less as sequential (and predictable) series of occurrences and more of a Begebenheit or a “sign of history” “delivering itself.” This is the sublime, Lyotard explained,

Great changes, like the French Revolution, are not, in principle, sublime, by themselves..the sublime is best determined by the indeterminate..The Begebenheit which ought to make a sign of history could be found only on the side of the audience watching he spectacle of the upheavals..The spectators, placed on other national stages, which make up the theater hall for the spectacle and where absolutism generally reigns, cannot on the contrary, be suspected of having empirical interests in making their sympathies public (öffentlich), they even run the risk of suffering repression at the hands of their governments..The Teilnehmung through desire is not a participation in the act. But it is worth more, because the feeling of the sublime, for its sake, is in fact spread out onto all national stages.

Closely related to the Differend, then, is the Sublime, a topic which Lyotard continued in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, which will be further discussed in the next post.

*Published as Enthusiasm. The Kantian Critique of History by Stanford University in 2009.

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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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]