The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge by Jean-François Lyotard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What is postmodernism? Is it, whatever it is, still occurring or have we moved on to something else—metamodernism, the New Sincerity, neo-modernism, etc.? Is it an artistic movement or a state of society as a whole? Is it a left- or right-wing political phenomenon? Is it a form of Marxism or the most thorough and intense version of anti-communism? Is it the logical terminus of Enlightenment rationalism or the triumph of irrationalist counter-Enlightenment? Is it a good or a bad thing?
Answering these questions and more would require open-ended interpretations of complex phenomena across innumerable domains; in truth, they can’t be answered convincingly by any one person. But surely reading one of the key early books on the subject will provide us some clues in the cultural labyrinth. Of this particular book, a report on the state of scientific knowledge written at the request of the Quebec government in 1979, its author, according to Wikipedia,
later admitted that he had a “less than limited” knowledge of the science he wrote about, and to compensate for this knowledge, he “made stories up” and referred to a number of books that he hadn’t actually read. In retrospect, he called it “a parody” and “simply the worst of all my books”.
Which confession makes me feel less inadequate for never having found this brief, dry, dense treatise— almost every sentence of which is footnoted with references to all those books neither Lyotard nor I have read—very comprehensible. It does start with a veritable slogan, though, which helps: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives.”
What are metanarratives? They are the stories modern science or its philosophical and political partisans have told to legitimate itself before the public, i.e., though he doesn’t quite put it this way, the Enlightenment. They are metanarratives because they provide a narrative justification for science, which is not itself narrative but a set of procedures for producing statements about physical reality that correspond to that reality. Lyotard singles out two such Enlightenment metanarratives, the political and the philosophical. In the political story, humanity through education becomes more and more informed about the truth of the world and therefore more and more able to govern itself as a free citizenry in a free society. The philosophical narrative is the political narrative spiritualized, as it were, in Hegel and other idealist philosophers, who believe in the progressive self-conscious realization of our own capacity for freedom.
These metanarratives, however, did not result in the promised liberation. Instead, they promulgated what Lyotard, with a backward glance at the Jacobins, calls the “terror” of silencing all dissent and exterminating all alternatives; they lead, in other words, to imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. But this isn’t the only reason to abandon them and take up “incredulity” instead, nor even the main reason Lyotard gives in this book, though it is the most ethically and politically consequential. The actual practice of science, he writes, as well as the economies of the developed nations, are more and more devoted to language, in the form of computer code, cybernetics, informatics, fractal geometry, and the like, all fields requiring the production, manipulation, or analysis of sign-systems to operate. With recourse to the later Wittgenstein, Lyotard argues that as these scientific fields define more and more of our lives, we will come to recognize not one single metanarrative but rather a plurality of “language games,” each with its own rules, as defining the future. In this technological pluralism is implied a corresponding social and cultural diversity, a thousand flowers blooming in the cracked edifice of Enlightenment.
These language-games will be justified not by metanarratives but by what he calls “pragmatics” or “performativity,” by which he means their ability to accomplish certain ends. “Does it work?” becomes a more important question than “What does it mean?” or “Is it true?” As this increasingly computerized society empowers the multinational corporation to become sovereign as the master of this technology, the nation-state itself, whose natal citizenry was the hero of the Enlightenment metanarrative, wanes in importance as a plurality and diversity of practices spreads over the globe. What the metanarratives of science have suppressed—narrative itself, for one, which Lyotard argues oriented traditional and indigenous cultures in their cosmos without the need for progressive teleological metanarratives—can re-emerge and the terror of silencing may be a thing of the past. All manner of previously authoritative institutions will likewise collapse; he foresees, for example, the demise of the traditional university—itself the inaugural seat of idealism’s philosophical metanarrative—in favor of a hub where students can be taught to access relevant information and compose their own codes.
Whether these are positive or negative developments, he doesn’t fully say. On the one hand, his evocation of indigenous narrative vs. imperial metanarrative suggests a progressive hope in postmodern “incredulity” to liberate previously suppressed peoples; on the other hand, he’s clear about the nexus of money and power that a tech-dominated and corporate-led global society will require, surely an anti-democratic feature of the coming landscape.
In a more polemically written afterword, entitled (after Kant’s epochal essay on Enlightenment) “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?” Lyotard makes his own views clearer. He argues against the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, the last representative of the Frankfurt School and therefore of the idealist tradition, a thinker who moreover attacked postmodern philosophers like Derrida and Foucault as “conservatives” for challenging such progressive projects of modernity as liberalism and Marxism. Lyotard turns the charge back, effectively accusing Habermas of Stalinism:
When power assumes the name of a party, realism and its neoclassical complement triumph over the experimental avant-garde by slandering and banning it—that is, provided the “correct” images, the “correct” narratives, the “correct” forms which the party requests, selects, and propagates can find a public to desire them as the appropriate remedy for the anxiety and depression that public experiences.
If The Postmodern Condition dwells, sometimes incomprehensibly (not to mention fraudulently), on science, its afterword more credibly discusses art. Lyotard sees the modern and the postmodern as perennial conditions or poles of an opposition within the modern period as a whole: “The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself.” The moderns posit wholeness, either a wholeness lost to time or one to come in a utopian future; the postmoderns, by contrast, know that humanity never was or could be whole, and that any attempt to make it so will only end in some kind of totalitarian dystopia.
Montaigne’s essays, he says, are postmodern, while Schlegel’s fragments are modern, presumably—he doesn’t elaborate—because Montaigne playfully writes his own uncertainty into the text while Schlegel portentously evokes the totality of which his discourse is only a scattering. Malevich with his solemn God-shaped hole of a black canvas is a modernist, Duchamp with his witty interrogation of the art institution a postmodernist; Hegel and his syntheses are modernist, Kant and his antinomies postmodernist. In the lengthiest comparison, he gives us Proust the modernist—nostalgic for a lost paradise written up in a still-referential and stylistically unified prose—and Joyce the postmodernist—exposing the inadequacy of all signs in a language calling constant ludic attention to its performance. He concludes with the force of a manifesto:
Finally, it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented. And it is not to be expected that this task will effect the last reconciliation between language games (which, under the name of faculties, Kant knew to be separated by a chasm), and that only the transcendental illusion (that of Hegel) can hope to totalize them into a real unity. But Kant also knew that the price to pay for such an illusion is terror. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.
If I have summarized this difficult and somewhat hoaxing book persuasively, how does it help us with our opening questions? On the political coordinates of postmodernism, Lyotard’s argument, for all its voguish cyber-talk, is remarkably congruent with Cold War anti-communism and the even older traditions of moderation out of which it grows; with the disparagement of “terror” and warnings about abstract idealism, we might be reading a more up-to-date Albert Camus or Hannah Arendt, not to mention Edmund Burke, but without the crucial dimension of these thinkers’ recourse to art and nature and the civic, which Lyotard replaces with the unrepresentable sublime of a world no mind can apprehend. The valorization of self-consciously pluralized language-games in the name of the “silenced” is a sentimental post-’60s multiculturalist take not only on Wittgenstein but on Nietzsche’s rather colder perspectivism and aestheticism.
None of this is objectionable, since the experiences of imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism should make us cautious about totalizing political and technological initiatives. But at this strange crossroads where Burke’s exaltation of “little platoons” meets Toni Morrison’s elegy for “discredited knowledges,” Lyotard gives away too much. For as illegitimate as one may find the modern state, it’s more accountable than its would-be replacement in the multinational corporation, and its laws are the only guarantors of pluralism (besides sheer force) in the form of rights. William Gibson exposed Lyotard’s pitch for cyber-diversification in the global company town as dystopia only a few years after The Postmodern Condition was published; we confirm its disadvantages—censorious, manipulative, exploitative, surveillant—every day of our 21st-century lives. Finally, for someone who wants to “wage war on totality” and make fun of Stalinist criticism, Lyotard is suspiciously eager to pass definitive judgments, as if there were not other ways to read Hegel, Proust, or Joyce.
Despite its reputation as helping to put the concept of “postmodernism” on the conceptual map, Lyotard’s book is probably too idiosyncratic to be exhaustive. But on its evidence, we might say that postmodernism was a partially justified conservative revolt that unfortunately ended up emboldening authorities who threaten to become as totalitarian as those it criticized; that we are still postmodern insofar as it names the condition of a corporate, digital, and at least officially pluralist society; and that its assault on the modern was too indiscriminate, striking through imposition and terror to cut down order and beauty too.