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

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

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

Part One: The Historical Context

The life path and careers of Jean-François Lyotard suggest that this philosopher needs to be understood as a bricoleur. A scholar who stood in a liminal position in history, Lyotard appropriated and borrowed concepts from other philosophers and refitted these ideas or motifs for a future he could not see but could part. Although he was criticized by more than a few fellow philosophers for incorrectly using the “language games” of Ludwig Wittgentstein, for example, Lyotard can also be seen as someone searching for the right philosophical tools to describe his unique task. The reader follows his trajectory, sometimes scattered and indirect, and finds the tracks and traces of Lyotard’s own biography upon his mature philosophical writings. He was frequently in a position to observe cultural changes that would leave lingering marks on society and his thought. Although he once considered becoming an artist (a desire that would manifest itself in other books), Lyotard became a teacher and was posted in Algeria in from 1950 to 1952, where anti-colonialism, once below the surface, was breaking through. He was in Algeria during the same period as Frantz Fanon, author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and left just before the arrival of historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930-206), who wrote scathingly of the use of torture by the French colonizers in Torture: Cancer of Democracy: France and Algeria 1954-1962 (1963).

Lyotard’s commitment to social activism and Marxism, which was triggered during his Algerian period, was tested ten years later when he was teaching at Nanterre, the Ur source of student uprisings that spread throughout France. Indeed, it goes without saying that anyone drawn to the vocations of arts and religion (he once toyed with becoming a monk) would be temperamentally disinclined to accept authority. Like many intellectuals of his time, Lyotard was a politically active committee Marxist, belonging to two separate groups, Socialisme ou Barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier, before disillusionment with what was an apparently a lost cause set in. The proletariat rose but the regime did not fall and, after the “days of May,” all went seemingly back to normal. But just as the barricades of the uprisings of May 1968 were dismantled, so too were the metanarratives of totalizing reason. While Lyotard abandoned the metanarrative of Marxism, the ingrained concern with social domination was never far below the surface of his works and he never stopped practicing critique and he never got over his suspicions of systems and of the machinations of those in power. Witnessing the injustice and brutality of French rule in Algeria apparently gave Lyotard a heightened sense of injustice and an instinct for situations which allowed unfairness to breed.

Indeed, far from celebrating “the Postmodern condition,” Lyotard critiqued the current state of affairs, in which the state owned and controlled knowledge, now computerized and contained in giant databases, poised to take away individual autonomy. As was pointed out in previous texts, he was viewing and reviewing what he clearly understood to be an apocryphal shift in epistemology and, consequently, an abrupt change–knowledge became information. Once in control of the mode of information production, the system could then instrumentalize students for performatativity for the state via education. The habit of a Marxist analysis existed as a subterranean subtext with in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge–the computer now became the mode of producing knowledge and, consequently, cybernetics was the new base throwing off and generating new superstructures that were incompatible with the creation of “pure” knowledge.

Certainly much of what Lyotard foresaw has come to pass: knowledge is used instrumentally by the system which educates its citizens so that they can perform in certain desired ways. It is at this point that Lyotard’s vision was halted: he could not see over the horizon, but we now know that the Internet has wrested control of information/knowledge and its production not only from the government but also from corporate interests. These very corporate and systems-based interests vie today to seize and control these new modes of production, as Lyotard would have predicted, but out of The Postmodern Condition came new concerns that still plague the culture today. The philosopher foresaw a silencing of non-compatible or noncompliant discourses by outsiders on the part of a system intent on maintaining itself. On one hand, the new épistemé is nurtured by performativity, based upon one’s competence with language games; and on the other hand there are ways to counter the imperialism of the game through “little narratives.”

It is at this point in The Postmodern Condition that Lyotard recognized the very real possibility that language games not only allowed for articulation within the rules but that also these very regulations could also be used for the silencing of some of the game players. Using the words “violence” and “terror” to describe this refusal to hear certain kinds of utterances, Lyotard signaled his next step in his investigation: his most formal and provocative work, an examination of what he called “le différend.” The word “formal refers to the measured pace of the book which is ordered into Wittgensteinian paragraphs, each of which has its own number. Nested inside this procession of propositions are intermittent series of paragraphs which discuss, in a smaller font, related writings of other philosophers and this internal progression of the argument has its own numbering system. The structure within a structure is rarely remarked upon in terms of its metaphorical value but it is worth noting that Lyotard included numerous other philosophical voices in a book which is devoted to examining the language games that silence one group so that another group can be empowered. He positioned a chorus of multi-vocaled discourses against the voicelessness of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Lyotard’s primary example of the result of a différend is Auschwitz,, which makes the timing of the writing and publication of Le Différend as interesting as its internal complexity. When he returned to France in the early fifties, Lyotard arrived in a nation that had allowed itself to forget the Holocaust and the fate of French Jews at the hands of the French collaborationists and had rewritten the story of the Occupation as one of brave resistance and victimhood. In her book, Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy (2013), Rebecca Clifford noted that it was not until the late 1960s that French historians gradually turned away from the narrative that the Vichy government was to blame for the victimization of all French people and began to examine the uncomfortable question of the fate of the Jews of France. In fact, the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation, built in 1962, listed the names of all of the French who were deported under the Nazis and by the Vichy government and was, therefore not specifically a Holocaust memorial, thus denying the fact of deliberate extermination and hiding French guilt.


In her introduction to Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France (2004), Joan Beth Wolf explained the post-war discretion on the topic of the Holocaust in France as an understandable reluctance on the part of French citizens to identify themselves as “Jews” after the War. Like most Jews in Europe, those of France considered themselves assimilated and could not comprehend that they were not “French,” but Jewish and that that identity–one they and long considered secondary–would cost them their lives. It was the Six Day War of 1967 that awoke the not so dormant wartime trauma and the French Jews, alive to the existential danger to Israel, spoke against De Gaulle’s support of the Arab perspective and, as Wolf described, found a political voice. Two years later Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, a four hour documentary of the German occupation, made for French television, was banned from French television. Composed of clips from eighty hours of testimony gathered by Ophuls, the series destroyed the myth of the brave French Resistance and detailed how French collaborationists were responsible for sending Jewish children to concentration camps. This odd lacunae in history–the reluctance to seek the truth and the resistance to the facts–was not a particular French fault but a generalized situation and the French Jews were actually early in their demands that history be correctly and completely recounted. After decades of disinterest in the fate of the Jews, America was riveted by a home-grown television mini-series, Holocaust, in 1979, and this series traveled to France and Germany, similarly informing a new generation of the pasts of their parents. On the heels of the slow unfolding of acknowledgement came Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985 in France and the “Historian’s Controversy” in Germany.

Although opposed by Lanzmann’s magisterial eight hour film about silence, France had its own version of historical revisionism in which the Holocaust was denied by pseudo-historians, Robert Faurisson, Paul Rassinier and Arthur Butz. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who had so strongly spoken out against torture in Algeria, then turned his attention towards this deliberate attempt to deny the historical truth in a series of essays published between 1981 and 1987 (later collected in one book, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust in 1992). Lyotard’s Le Différend was written in réponse to both The Postmodern Condition and to the early essays of Vidal-Naquet which attempted to reassert the power of actual lived history against the unimaginable absurdity of literary cant being used to obliterate the past. Lyotard often mentioned Vidal-Naquet, not a well known historian in the United States, in his book and like this younger writer, he made Robert Faurisson his chief foil or starting point for what was a contemplation on the inherent dangers of the rules of reason. Faurisson denied the Holocaust along the specious lines of deploying the clothing of reason and logic, unwittingly (perhaps) echoing the asserted rationality of extermination as uttered by the Nazis.

Against such word “play,” Le Différend, for all its careful structure and disciplined order, approached the question of the Holocaust from a careful intellectual distance that attempts to veil the undercurrent of political passions beneath the measured words. The text approaches the topic of Auschwitz with the care of a mandator confronting a bull: Lyotard suddenly focuses on the linguistic mechanics of the dehumanization of the Jews only to withdraw into long drawn out philosophical ruminations until suddenly he reverts and produces a few new paragraphs on the Holocaust. His is an elaborate and delicate dance with the most difficult of topics, a subject that defies language and explication. Wisely, Lyotard, not a historian (he once wanted to be an art historian), prised open the language game that deprived the victims of their right to speak: le différend.

The next post will discuss the theory of Le Différend.

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-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 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.

[email protected]

Defining Postmodernism


The End of History

“Postmodernism” was a term coined in 1939 by Arnold Toynbee early in the twentieth century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If the temporality of Postmodernism has always been problematic, for there are multiple points of beginning or terminus, then defining the term is also fraught with peril.

First, it is dangerous to attempt to define Postmodernism, which accepts contradictions, as one unified phenomenon is simply absurd. Second, Postmodernism was a discursive field, held more or less loosely together by the artificial boundaries of of the disciplines of literary theory and philosophy within which numerous theories and viewpoints proliferated. Third, the perspective on Postmodernity or the condition of being Postmodern depended upon which nation one was living in or upon which intellectual tradition one was drawing.

It is often said that Postmodernism was founded by French theorists, but this would be a Francophilic perspective. German theorists, notably Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, predicted some of the affects of Postmodernity in culture. The French writers were disillusioned Marxists, but three decades after the Frankfurt School had begun a critique of Marxism in a consumer society. In America, Postmodernism entered into academia as “critical theory,” a smorgasbord of philosophical samplings. But these bits and pieces of “theory” were presented without the cultural underpinnings that generated the authors and Americans assimilated elements without fully comprehending the cultural framework.

For Postmodernism, however, American would have been ground zero. Late capitalism, the founding condition of Postmodernity was at its unapologetic peak in American when Postmodern theories came into vogue. But America lacked the historical experience—the devastation of the Second World War—to understand the defining elements of Postmodern studies—disillusionment, despair, nihilism and hopelessness. One of the first theorists to attempt to define Postmodernism, Ihab Hassan, complained eloquently about the difficulty and isolated “a number of conceptual problems that both conceal and constitute postmodernism itself.” After he had noted his ten problems, Hassan provided the reader with a neat and useful chart comparing Modernism and Postmodernism.

Echoing the pessimism of Postmodernism, Hassan summed up the nature of Postmodernism in one word:

“indetermanence,” which “designate two central, constitutive tendencies in postmodernism: one of indeterminancy, the other of immanence. The two tendencies are not dialectical; for they are not exactly antithetical; nor do they lead to a synthesis. Each contains its own contradictions, and alludes to elements of the other. Their interplay suggests the action of a “polylectic,” pervading postmodernism.”

The “diverse concepts” brought forward by Hassan are all negative, at least when compared to Modernist positivism and optimism: “ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation…(which) subsumes a dozen current terms of unmaking: decreation, disintegration, deconstruction, decenterment, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimization” which can lead “to the rhetoric of irony, rupture, silence…loss, perversion, and dissolution..” Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn of 1987 was deeply pessimistic, denoting a singular and significant loss of certainty and unity that occurred with the death of Modernism.

Revising the topic of Postmodernism in the early 21st century, Hassan wrote From Postmodernism to Postmodernity: the Local/Global Context and defined his second term in terms of

…the fluent imperium of technology. Thus I call the second major tendency of postmodernism immanences, a term that I employ without religious echo to designate the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, intervene more and more into nature, act through its own abstractions, and project human consciousness to the edges of the cosmos. This mental tendency may be further described by words like diffusion, dissemination, projection, interplay, communication, which all derive from the emergence of human beings as language animals, homo pictor or homo significans, creatures constituting themselves, and also their universe, by symbols of their own making.

The question is does Postmodern reflect or cause the crisis in confidence in contemporary life? Critical theory tended to be so dense that it is important when defining Postmodernism to isolated two recurring themes: technology and the death of the master narrative, which are entwined. With the demise of the metanarrative comes the end of truth and when truth falls so too does the capacity to represent. One of the earliest writers on Postmodernism was Jean-François Lyotard. In 1984, he attempted to answer the question What is Postmodernism? After a long prologue, he decided,

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but m order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining Judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en oeuvre) always begin too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).

Although Lyotard was one of the French Postmodern philosophers most concerned with the visual arts, I would argue that his primary impact upon Postmodernism was his attempt to discern the impact of technology upon science and the possibility of forming an entity called “knowledge.” Lyotard critiqued the Enlightenment mode of thinking—now outmoded—and noted the end of “le grand récit” also known as the “master narrative.” Although in 1979 The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge was forty years away from blogging and Facebook, Lyotard understood that technology made possible the “imaginative invention” of what he called “le petit récit” or the little narrative.

Lyotard’s celebration of the singular over the universal followed Theodor Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment and how the concept of totality resulted in the near extermination of the particular (the Jews). The “Condition” of Postmodernity, for Lyotard, is more than a breakdown of the master narrative, it is also the postindustrial world in which information has become a commodity. If information is a commodity in a consumerist world, then information, like any other commodity, will proliferate into these “little narratives.” In 2002 Ben Dorfman explained the “postmodern condition” in regards to knowledge:

In computerized society, where knowledge is mercantilized, it invades a space formerly occupied only by material production. Thus, knowledge is the only new product worth noticing, at any rate; it is really the only new element (or non-element, as the case might be) emerging from capitalist productivity. However, that knowledge has become a product is also noticeable. This is so not only because it changes the scenery of the capitalist landscape, but because it effects a transformation in the meaning and use of knowledge.

But what is the result of “our” refusal of the “grand narrative” that defined who we were? Without the metanarrative, we have no place in the contemporary and we must refer to the frozen certainty of history. As Dorfman stated,

We have, on one hand, a constant reference to the past – the antecedent to the present. Underneath our dismissal of grand narrative is our nostalgia for it. We wish we had a direction and participated in a story; stories and directions are what grand narrative.

To conclude, computer technology has the capability to disperse such large amounts of information, called “content,” in internet terms, that authority is ended. There is no single source of “knowledge.” There are no “experts” that exist above debate and contradiction. Knowledge becomes local, contingent or used when convenient. With the death of the center and the dissemination of many little stories, an intense subjectivity comes about. The individual who used to define herself within the grand narrative is now part of a local narrative and the old concept of the person as a subject who is part of a larger culture comes to an end. The result is a great hunger for stability and Postmodernism became a “before” instead of an “after” through nostalgia, a return to the past, the last bastion of certainty.

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

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

[email protected]