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Jean-François Lyotard

(1924—1998) French philosopher and literary critic

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Frenchphilosopher, author of more than 25 books on diverse topics, including aesthetics (especially the Avant-garde), ethics, justice, and political theory, but undoubtedly best known for his work on postmodernism, La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (1979), translated as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984).

In the early part of his career, from 1954–64, Lyotard was actively involved with the group ‘Socialism ou Barbarie’ (socialism or barbarism), whose members included such luminaries as Jean Laplanche, Claude Lefort, and Gerard Genette, among others. Led by its founder Cornelius Castoriadis, Socialism ou Barbarie sought to critique Marxism from within, arguing that it was more important to hold to the revolutionary spirit of Marx's ideas than the exact letter of his writings. In this period, Lyotard also actively campaigned against France's involvement in Algeria. Although he parted with the group in 1964, Lyotard remained in solidarity with the Left until the failure (as he saw it) of the events of May '68 led him to break with Marxism altogether. He would come to see Marxism as a discourse of terror, as the vituperative account of the ‘desire called Marx’ in Economie libidinale (1974), translated as Libidinal Economy (1993) makes clear.

Written for the provincial government of Quebec's Conseil des Universités, La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (1979) lifted the term postmodernism out of its relative obscurity as the name for a new stylistic trend in architecture, literature, and the arts, and transformed it into an indictment of the present age. Lyotard's principal thesis, summed up in the famous phrase that the present age is defined by ‘incredulity towards grand narratives’, is that scientific discourse (knowledge in general) has entered a new phase characterized by the unavailability of its traditional legitimating narratives, namely Revolution (the idea that detecting faults in a particular society will spontaneously give rise to a social movement to correct them) and Enlightenment (the idea that through the sophistication of arts and sciences human society necessarily becomes more humane than it was). In the absence of grand narratives, knowledge today is forced to fall back on highly localized values, or ‘little narratives’, particularly the idea of efficiency.

Perhaps Lyotard's most provocative idea is that these little narratives should be thought of as highly specific and completely incommensurable language games (a term he borrows from Wittgenstein). Although Lyotard took care to state that this did not mean that society is in a state of chaotic Brownian motion, nor that language games are the only form of social relation there is, he nonetheless conveyed the strong impression that the absolute relativism (or anti-foundationalism) such a thesis implies should be regarded as a virtue because it means no single language game is capable of either dominating or integrating all the other language games. Indeed, Lyotard goes so far as to say that political struggle should consist in ‘waging war on totality’, by which he means any form of hegemonic discourse. As meagre a notion of freedom as this is, many readers of Lyotard have seen it as hopeful because it seems to betoken the idea that resistance is possible. It is, however, a highly problematic notion of resistance because by definition it lacks any possibility of coordinating individual language games so as to create a genuine social movement.


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