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The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

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This book explores science and technology, makes connections between these epistemic, cultural, and political trends, and develops profound insights into the nature of our post-modernity. Many definitions of postmodernism focus on its nature as the aftermath of the modern industrial age when technology developed. This book extends that analysis to postmodernism by looking at the status of science, technology, and the arts, the significance of technocracy, and the way the flow of information is controlled in the Western world.

144 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 1979

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About the author

Jean-François Lyotard

136 books291 followers
Jean-François Lyotard (DrE, Literature, University of Paris X, 1971) was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well-known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and for his analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition.

He went to primary school at the Paris Lycées Buffon and Louis-le-Grand and later began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. After graduation, in 1950, he took a position teaching philosophy in Constantine in French East Algeria. He married twice: in 1948 to Andrée May, with whom he had two daughters, and for a second time in 1993 to the mother of his son, who was born in 1986.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 217 reviews
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,380 reviews12k followers
August 14, 2022

Believe Anything by artist Barbara Kruger

Language games along with technology coloring knowledge and coding messages, anyone? Welcome to The Postmodern Condition by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998). In the spirit of freshness and as a way of providing what I hope is a unique angle on the philosopher’s abstract theory, below are quotes from the text along with my observations incorporating what I judge to be a near-perfect literary example of Lyotard’s presentation of postmodernism in action: Donald Barthelme’s short story Game.

One meaning of postmodern for Lyotard: “The emphasis can also be placed on the increase of being and the jubilation which results from the invention of new rules of the game, be it pictorial, artistic or any other.”

The first thing our narrator tells us is how the other man in an underground bunker with him has a set of jacks and rubber ball and refuses to allow him, the narrator, to join in the game. As if a multicolored thread stretched from one end of their bunker to another, the theme of games and game playing runs through the entire story. In the postmodern, all phases of life are touched by gaming.

“The grammar and vocabulary of literary language are no longer accepted as given; rather, they appear as academic forms, as rituals originating in piety (as Nietzsche said) which prevent the unpresentable from being put forward.”

Reading Barthelme we have the distinct impression the author has set aside traditional literary forms and formulas – when Shotwell plays jacks, the narrator begins writing on the walls, writing a series of descriptions of forms occurring within nature, such as a shell, a leaf, a stone and an animal. Writing on the walls - how outrageous and childlike! Writing itself as a light touch undercutting pretentiousness and any claim to literary seriousness. Is our narrator creating in a similar spirit to Barbara Kruger, the artist in the above photo?

“The postmodern would be that which puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself."

For Jean-François Lyotard, knowledge is power and this very fact is key to what I take him to mean by “the unpresentable.”

Our narrator relates a power game he and Shotwell play with pistols, for example, he gives the impression he is watching Shotwell’s .45 but this is simply a ruse, a maneuver since he is actually watching Shotwell’s hand when it dangles within reach of his hidden Beretta. Indirection and maneuvering as a method of undercutting established norms and conventional modes of power.

“The postmodern would be that which denies itself the solace of good forms.”

At one point in the story, the author writes: “When it became clear that an error had been made, that we were not to be relieved, the norms were relaxed. Definitions of normality were redrawn in the agreement of January 1, called by us, "The Agreement.”" One way of reading Barthelme’s short tale is as an exercise in seeing clearly how “an error had been made” in the setting down and establishing fixed rules when it comes to literature and the arts.

“The postmodern would be that which the consensus of taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable.”

For me, “consensus of taste” brings to mind how in our multimedia world we are all very much influenced by technology. Millions of people across the globe watch the same image from the same broadcast. In the story, a constant presence in their bunker – the console. And that’s ‘console’ as in an unending stream of visual images and audio transmission.

“The postmodern would be that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.”

Key concept here is ‘experiment’ – the arts, writing and the creative process itself as an exercise in experimentation. At one point our narrator reflects how the entire episode of remaining underground with Shotwell all these many days might be nothing other than an experiment. Very fitting for Barthelme’s experimental fiction.

“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 judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work."

A subject the narrator writes about on one of the walls is, of all things, a baseball bat. And his description runs 4500 words! Words, words, words – in our information age, is there anything anywhere not drowning in an entire ocean of words?

“The artist and the writer are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.”

Felling creative? Like author Donald Barthelme and his narrator in this story as fragment (or, perhaps, fragment as story) feel free to make up the rules as you go along,

Jean-François Lyotard
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,891 reviews1,419 followers
December 22, 2013
Well before Big Data there were ominous whispers. That is how I recall this book's bark at my door: fear tinged with the excitement of change Sometime between the collapse of the Wall and the Towers, I was forever fearful of a mis-step. The world was tumultuous and I lacked all grace. I was late to the Theory party. I was blind drunk on my Nietzsche, sort of mumbled through the grotesque parts of Foucault (though it was his biographies that have resonated) with Derrida and the Rhizome Twins (D and G) just too cool for school. Out of that rave this text resonated. It simply asked, theoretically what can we adhere towards, lacking a legitimate metanarrative, we are orphans, without a heritage or metaphysical hope. Of course it was stagecraft, we -- readers of Lyotard -- weren't being hunted in streets nor blasted by unmanned weapon platforms. The Postmodern Condition is a placeholder. It works best temporarily. Planned ignoring is suitable strategy after the fact.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,012 reviews607 followers
November 17, 2019
Donald Trump, the vilest president ever, instinctively knows of what this author was laying out in 1979. Trump successfully does everything in his power to sow doubts in good-faith reality based news sources by declaring they are fake news and confusing us with ‘alternative facts’. Hitler called it ‘Jew Press’, and would say if ‘you could only read the Protocols of Elder than you would understand’; Trump will say ‘climate change is a Chinese hoax’, ‘vaccines cause autism’, or ‘both sides have good points when Nazis drive cars into peaceful protestors’.

The trick is to realize that belief comes from opinions and feeling and there is no controlling overriding authority except for the ones we choose to believe in; our justified true beliefs (knowledge) are best formed by using our logic, empirical data about the world, analytical constructs and narratives tying them together, and they are least persuasive when appealing to authority alone. This book shows how in 1979 the world was realizing itself as post-modern and that it was what it was. The reliance on authority, tradition, cultural norms and imaginary friends in the sky are no longer our guiding lights and our reliance on ourselves as ourselves for meaning was becoming the new standard. Hitler understood it in 1924, Trump understands it today and this book explains the phenomenon as it was unveiling itself in 1979.

‘Post Modernism’ literally means ‘after modernism’. It is not an affirmation in itself. It is only a negation of something that was and indicates nothing about what it is. This author adds a little structure to that which has no structure by making post-modernism being narratives absent of meta-narratives. That is there is no narrative for the narrative itself. The world you are thrown into has no meaning beyond the meaning that you make of it through yourself and by your own devices from being-in-the-world while being part-of-the-world. The ultimate word game of word games is that it is up to you to figure this out for yourself. The author will point out that any change to the ‘rules of the game’ changes the game into another game.

If you want perfect knowledge with perfect rules, play the game of chess or baseball. In those games, there is an arbitrator for disputes within the definition of the written rules; real life is not a game. The umpires in baseball or the stewards in chess are as the Supreme Court, they are right because they are last not right because they are last.

The real world has no controlling ultimate authority and justice is a word we use when we force our will onto others. Socrates must have known what he did when he asked ‘what is justice’ as he was standing in line and bothering someone who just wanted revenge against his father. The fact that somebody asks the question doesn’t mean that the item under consideration exists. Asking the question presumes justice exists in the world, but that doesn’t mean that justice is real or it will ever be realized.

The author does purposely conflate justice, truth and knowledge in order to show the paradox that we are in. He’ll say something along the lines that as soon as we describe the world with a narrative we lose knowledge. He knows that we create the narrative while we leave Plato’s cave and that ‘men yearn for narratives and fail to recognize knowledge. Knowledge is thus founded on the narrative of its own martyrdom’.

Stephen Pinker in his most recent book put the post-modernist into the 9th circle of hell because they are deceivers according to him, a deeper level of hell than even the pedophiles. He does that because he is an exemplar of someone who will do anything to defend his privileging of the privilege who reside within his ‘class without an identity’ and believes that his brand of the truth is the only reasonable brand of the truth even if that means he’ll have to say you ‘can’t really be poor if you have a cell phone’ and he believes that his narrative is the universal, necessary and certain narrative. Jordan Peterson crazily calls Marxist post-modernist not realizing that Marxist believe that history gives scientific truths through historicity (a very not post-modernist thing to do). Both Pinker and Jordan (and Trump) believe that their narrative is not a myth but worthy of being the part of the true overriding controlling authority narrative worthy of universality, and they are not aware that they would not be able to spout their myth if not for the post-modernist laying an ontological foundation allowing diversity of beliefs.

Post-modernist know that what people believe is a function of the narrative they have and that there is no meta-narrative that makes our beliefs universal, necessary and certain. There are multiple values in science that can conflict; I call it the SPAWN system (I made it up), Simple (Occam’s razor), Predictive ability, Accuracy (standard model good to 10 decimal places), fits into the Web of knowledge (in the way William Van Orman Quine would mean), and with a Narrative that is used to explain, understand and account for the world to the best of our ability until we inevitably explain the world differently with a new narrative. Always, science will balance those multiple values and gravitate towards the narrative that seems to work best while never writing the narrative in stone realizing that our ‘truths’ in 1900 might not be the same in the year 2000 as our truths in the year 2100 might be different.

This book is devilishly clever and is relevant to today. To fully embrace this book one needs to understand the author is telling you how the world is not how it ought to be. Everyone wants to live in a just world and wants to believe the truth is out there and there is meaning beyond us but that doesn’t make it so (nor does it make it not so). The world just is, and we will have morons like Adolph Hitler or Donald Trump take advantage of us because they know the truth for their foolish followers is what they tell them it is because their dimwitted followers want to believe it to be so. Even though we live in a post-modern world, we still have to think for ourselves and determine what is true, what is moral and what is deserving of our attention.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
528 reviews244 followers
June 18, 2017
I can't help but think the main reason this book remains in currency is because it is widely regarded as the locus classicus for a definition and analysis of the term "postmodernism," which Lyotard did not invent. Nor, in my mind, did he add much to European culture's self-understanding of the broad cultural tendencies amalgamated under that porous banner.

Lyotard loosely defines postmodernism as a suspicion of meta-narratives, arguing that ideas can no longer be afforded legitimacy purely by reference to external narratives such as "science" or "history." This is not to say that scientific or historical claims cannot be legitimate, but they cannot appeal to legitimacy by virtue of being formulated in the language of science or history.

Legitimacy is the name of the game for Lyotard, and his borderline-wholesale rejection of legitimacy altogether places him squarely in opposition to Juergen Habermas, who had already attempted to ground intersubjective legitimacy in his theory of communicative action at the time this book was written. Habermas's response to this challenge was, to my knowledge, to ignore it altogether.

And rightfully so, as Lyotard's analysis is weak. One can easily assent to the trivial observation that the last two centuries have exemplified a crisis of faith in social, metaphysical, and religious understanding. One could fruitfully gain as much from reading Nietzsche's shorter and better "Twilight of the Idols," written a century earlier. But Lyotard relies too much on what I find to be an irrational and to some degree aesthetic appeal to our intuitions, and that is entirely inadequate to deal with the problem of science.

Lyotard critiques the epistemic naïveté of scientists of the logical positivist ilk, arguing that a correspondence theory of truth presupposes privileged access to the world. In his critique he struggles to replace correspondence with criteria of performativity derived from Wittgenstein's infamous language games. At this point, in my mind, his argument breaks down.

On the basis of general laws extrapolated from observation, scientists are able to launch robotic craft and fly them 300 million miles to Mars, and then to land them so gently that the robotic rovers within are not damaged. Imagine trying to land something carefully and accurately at a distance of 300 million miles.

On the basis of that example alone, I will contest that something rather like correspondence is in fact occurring in the sciences. That kind of predictive power cannot be reduced to questions of legitimacy without altogether losing sight of the basic facts of what is occurring. It strikes me as ridiculous even to try.

This is not to deny that naive realism should be problematized, but one needs a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

As long as there are graduate students who need a citation for their first mention of the term postmodernism this book will circulate, but as an account of the postmodern condition, it presents a weak attempt to account for complex issues.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 19 books281 followers
January 1, 2010
This work, by Jean Francois Lyotard, is one of the signature works of postmodern theory. Say what you will of this perspective, this book is necessary reading in understanding the subject. This is not an easy work; however, those who persevere will be rewarded with interesting insights, whether or not one agree with postmodern thinking.

Lyotard defines Postmodern thought in contrast to modernism. Modernism, he claims, is ". . .any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind [i.e., philosophy:] making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth." Postmodernism, in turn, is ". . .incredulity toward metanarratives."

Science and technology, especially information sciences based on computers, are increasingly an important commodity and the focus of worldwide competition. Knowledge and political power have become linked. Thus: ". . .[W:]ho decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government."

A central issue then becomes who has access to the information, since access will produce power. Lyotard sees it as inevitable that bureaucrats and technocrats will be the ones to master this basic resource of power, information. This will strengthen their hand in political circles. Research is expensive, and the pursuer of truth must purchase equipment to make the scientific process work. Thus, wealth begins to set the agenda for the scientist; scientists will go where the bucks are! The criterion for research becomes less the quest for truth and more "performativity," what is the immediate or intermediate payoff, performance value, of the scientific process and of technology. Power helps to shape what research gets funded.

Lyotard argues that the Postmodern moment should emphasize "paralogy," or dissensus. He argues: ". . .it is now dissension that must be emphasized. Consensus is a horizon that is never reached. Research that takes place under the aegis of a paradigm tends to stabilize; it is like the exploitation of a technology, economic, or artistic 'idea.'"

Postmodern science, in his view, encompasses: "The function of differential or imaginative or paralogical activity of the current pragmatics of science is to point out these. . .'presuppositions and to petition the players to accept different ones. The only legitimation that can make this kind of request admissible is that it will generate ideas, in other words, new statements." Thus, new statements, new presuppositions maintain science as an open system of discourse, characterized by paralogy (dissensus) as individuals strive to generate new knowledge, not imprisoned by existing consensus on what one should study and how one should study it.

This book is difficult reading, but to understand postmodernism, this is one of the works that demands that readers confront its arguments, whether in agreement or not.
Profile Image for T.
195 reviews1 follower
January 23, 2021
"Let us wage war on totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name"
Profile Image for Panos.
76 reviews
May 9, 2016
ΟΚ, ομολογώ πως επανειλημμένα μου έκαψε τον εγκέφαλο, ωστόσο υπάρχουν ορισμένα χωρία που είναι κατανοητά. Σίγουρα πρόκειται για έργο αναφοράς και δεν υπάρχει μελέτη για το μεταμοντέρνο που να μην αναφέρεται στο παρόν βιβλίο. Παραμένει όμως, κατά τη γνώμη μου, πολύ δυσνόητο.
Profile Image for Maggie Siebert.
Author 2 books217 followers
February 23, 2022
read somewhere that lyotard didn't read many of the sources he cites here and uh you can tell. seeds of interesting ideas but i have a feeling they're better articulated elsewhere?
Profile Image for Esteban del Mal.
191 reviews64 followers
December 16, 2009
"The needs of the most underprivileged should not be used as a system regulator as a matter of principle: since the means of satisfying them is already known, their actual satisfaction will not improve the system's performance, but only increase its expenditures. The only counterindication is that not satisfying them can destabilize the whole. It is against the nature of force to be ruled by weakness. But it is in its nature to induce new requests meant to lead to a redefinition of the norms of 'life.' In this sense, the system seems to be a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it, dehumanizing it in order to rehumanize it at a different level of normative capacity. The technocrats declare that they cannot trust what society designates as its needs; they 'know' that society cannot know its own needs since they are not variables independent of the new technologies. Such is the arrogance of the decision makers -- and their blindness."

I really want to be sympathetic to postmodernism, but I don't understand what it's trying to say. What use is a prescription if it is illegible? Too often, this "philosophy" seems the solipsism of a mute schizophrenic. The best I can gather, it is really just the age-old argument of relativism against absolutism, and I think the Sophists did a better job with that argument (Socrates be damned).

Lyotard is more readable than most of the postmoderns I've come across (even so, I could stand to read this one a time or two more). And (as with all philosophy I've read) this only gets interesting where the rubber meets the road (i.e., politics).
Profile Image for Philip of Macedon.
270 reviews63 followers
February 17, 2021
There are worse ways to spend a Sunday than reading Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, but none involve reading. Reading this cemented in my mind the importance of what Epictetus said about philosophy, which is that it is purposeless without applicability to one’s life, actions, or way of understanding and processing the world. I’m paraphrasing. Given this starting point, which I think is defensible, I can’t see any value in Lyotard’s contribution to philosophy, here. One should know their subject before writing on it.

I took notes while reading this, which ended up being too long to post into a review. I'm too impatient right now to turn these fragments into a proper review, so for now, here are some of my thought fragments:

The book is barely more coherent than the intro, but still written poorly. Lyotard rambles about his misunderstandings of science and knowledge. Discusses who owns and controls knowledge, the commercialization of knowledge, how this may affect power and relationships. He often uses obscure terms that do not give his sentences more strength, just vagueness, confusion, usually devoid of meaning. Concerned with legitimacy of knowledge. Seems as though he is confused about what science or knowledge is. Plenty of obtuse statements everywhere, which actually become more obtuse and less meaningful the more you look at them.

An example: Tries to discuss difference between knowledge of science and knowledge of ethics and politics, and says, “both stem from the same perspective, the same choice, the choice called the Occident.” This is a statement completely devoid of meaning at every level. It is never revisited, like many of his obscure statements on each page. I cannot list all the meaningless statements he makes, which he tries to pass off as substantial.

Discusses Wittgenstein’s language games, language as an agonistic game. Wants to use agonism as a foundational principle in understanding social relations in terms of communication and language games, never justifies doing so. This reads more like bad beat poetry than serious philosophy. Talks about statements as ‘moves’ guided by rules in language games. This is no more sensible or coherent or useful than when Wittgenstein introduced these concepts over 40 years earlier. After reading Wittgenstein I was skeptical that his language games provided any value to philosophy or understanding, and doubted they could be applied constructively. This appears to be how they were implemented: build poor models of human interaction and understanding to try to examine our discourse and sharing of knowledge.

Uses Cashinahua storyteller as example of narrative following pragmatics of transmission, how authority is granted by listening to narrative. Ironically, lacking self awareness, when talking about the odd transmission style of this narrative, Lyotard says: “it is a strange brand of knowledge, you may say, that does not even make itself understood to the young men to whom it is addressed.” Why, yes it is, Mr. Lyotard. What an astute observation. Goes on to make some amusing but not useful observations on how narratives are relayed.

In trying to parse what Lyotard is saying, it becomes clear he is not saying much that isn’t self evident or that is insightful. Ideas may deserve some examination and analysis, like the relationships of narrator, narratee, and hero of the story, as well as authority and legitimacy, but he does not analyze and does not reflect on this in a way that leads to anything resembling clarity, or shows that thinking about it at this level reveals anything enlightening.

Often uses phrases and words that give the illusion of depth, but upon looking more closely and carefully, show the emptiness behind most of his statements. He doesn't seem to know the meaning of many words he uses. Every page is replete with examples of this. His framework for narratives is already shaky but becomes more so when trying to apply it to scientific knowledge. Using Copernicus and path of planets as an example of pragmatics of scientific knowledge he tries to break down the roles of speaker, listener, and the referent, and the roles or rules regulating each.

Because language game rules are different in scientific and narrative knowledge we cannot know what is valid in either by applying standards of the other. OK. And? It's not clear that this is true in the first place, and no argument is presented for it. Second to last paragraph of chapter 7 intentionally or unintentionally describes Lyotard’s own manner of writing about knowledge. Then describes how scientific knowledge looks dismissively at narrative knowledge and states that this is related to cultural imperialism since the dawn of western civilization, as if western civilization invented imperialism. He says western imperialism has its own distinct tenor: it is governed by the demand for legitimation. This is not true. Legitimation has been a feature of most conquering cultures and nations for all of history, east or west. Mayan, Aztec, Mongolian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, various Muslim, etc... Lyotard not only has a bad grasp of scientific thought, but apparently of history as well.

Offers anecdote about scientists trying to explain their discoveries as epics when they are non-epic (by now the 50th time he has used words erroneously and without trying to explain what he means with these terms, since he is clearly using them incorrectly), but does not cite a single example of this occurrence. Says the state spends a lot of money to pass science off as epic, so the public will give the consent the decision makers need. At this point it is beginning to sound like a conspiracy theory.

Lyotard is hoping to show that there are big incompatibilities or differences between scientific and narrative knowledge and faults the blending of the two in science popularization. But his entire dichotomy is artificial, concocted by him apparently, and without justification. So after erecting this needlessly false separation of these kinds of thinking without justifying why they should be seen as wholly distinct, he uses this assumption of difference and incompatibility to criticize the moments where they appear to blend. Not even clear he is criticizing because his thoughts are never clear. This is the sort of writing one would expect from someone who isn’t sure what they are trying to say.

More inane statements devoid of meaning, like after referring to the allegory of the cave from Plato: “Knowledge is thus founded on the narrative of its own martyrdom.” No matter how long you look at this statement or think about this statement and no matter how much context you have from this book, it is utterly meaningless word garbage. I have lost count of the times he’s done this.

Lyotard says this: “scientific knowledge cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to narrative knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all.”

This is not true. Science is not conscious and does not assert that narrative knowledge is not knowledge. As mentioned, this distinction between the two is something Lyotard has made up and is now trying to posit as a law of human understanding while he tries to construct a fallacy that doesn’t exist, based on a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. He then says it presupposes its own validity which is begging the question. This entire mess of word salad is an artificial problem Lyotard has invented from his ignorance of basic scientific thought and his obsession with narratives. He isn’t smart enough to see he has invented his own dumb problem that he thinks is an actual problem. No one who does science sees this as a problem because they aren’t operating by the made up rules Lyotard imagines they are. He hasn’t bothered to do his research, and this is after his diatribe about how he sees research and teaching as being related in the scientific form of knowledge.

So, Lyotard, since you apparently see your own form of knowledge separate from scientific, then it must fall under narrative. And since you are attempting to teach, to narrate, to those who read your work, and since you have clearly not done your research on the very topic you are writing, you must not believe that the same standard must be applied in narrative knowledge that must be applied in scientific knowledge. That is, those who are doing what you are doing don’t have to actually know what they’re talking about.

This fits in well with his theory. The narrative form of knowledge is not concerned with truth, but with justice. So he seems to envision his own kind of knowledge sharing not as an attempt at elucidating some truth, but suggesting some form of justice.

Talks about how the problem with scientific legitimation is such that truth is only defined by the rules of science which are determined as good only by consensus of experts. This is a gross misunderstanding of basic science. Has he read any science book in his entire life? This isn’t how scientific truth works. Repeats this same wrong assumption in the last few pages.

Discussion of opened and closed door, look at the outlandish stream of consciousness dribble that he lets fly. Every sentence is a meaningless jumble of words that transitions into a new sentence that does not follow from the one before it, until he gets to some questionable conclusion that has nothing to do with anything he’s talking about, regarding the legitimacy of the discourse of science. It is this: “Word mess of no meaning therefore word puddle of confused legitimacy, which takes us to inane rambling, so this is a critique of scientific discourse, which I cannot define.”

Continues his misunderstanding about what consensus of experts can really do, how the language of science works. Repeats his confusion about proofs, stating that proofs need to be proven, as though there must be some new language to validate the proofs to those who cannot understand them. This is a thing scientists have done for a long time, since before he wrote this book. He asks what scientific observation is. Mere sense is not sufficient for an observation. He pretends not to know this, or he really is deeply ignorant and out of his element. He acknowledges technology used for this end but frames it as another language game and loses his focus and his point.

Tries to show that this technological dependence then leads to greater importance on money, no money - no proof, so then only the rich can get the tools to generate the proof, and somehow through magic he equates wealth with truth, claiming truth is then decided by the wealthy. In reality it only means those with the funding are given the resources to find the truth, not that they get to decide what truth is, or that their claims of truth are then immune to scrutiny and legitimization.

Remarks on private companies funding research are not wrong but the details are not entirely accurate. Pure research institutes do receive less funding because their research is not commercial. What Lyotard neglects is fundamental: none of this knowledge is itself commercial or sensitive to commercial interests or wealth or technology. The knowledge is separate from all of these, it is only enabled by these. This does not affect the nature or character of this knowledge, it affects how the knowledge might be employed by those who have it or see its value. He is misunderstanding huge things. And he portrays the boundaries between different scientific disciplines as being far more defined and strict than they ever have been.

In his view, all scientific knowledge is now produced in an effort to augment power. His simply states this, he does not back it up. It is not even validated by his many prior pages of almost schizophrenic diatribes around things he doesn’t understand. He shows his disdain toward the notion of proof, which is fitting, as he seems to subscribe to no standard for the truth of his own sentiments. He presents no examples, not even anecdotes, no ideas of what he could be speaking of. Instead he is operating in pure abstraction divorced from reality. Ironic then that he is so fueled up about examining the knowledge of science.

He seems to let most of this hinge on his earlier insistence that we look at science as a language game and as these games as agonistic. There was no valid reason for him making these assertions pages ago, so a reader would be left wondering why he did so. It is now, only based upon these unfounded assertions, that he is able to attempt to color his present diagnosis as being based on any sound rationale.

We can see what he has done: it is what I call reverse philosophizing. This is like reverse engineering, when you see the final thing you want to build, and you learn how to build it by taking it apart and working backwards. He instead begins with a desired conclusion, and works backward from that to see how he can get there. Then, once he has seemingly achieved this, he presents it in a forward manner and pretends to have undertaken an honest process of following the reasoning to the reasonable conclusion. Motivated reasoning. A sign of this kind of thinking is the questionable and unqualified starting point, such as stating that science is an agonistic language game completely separated from the rest of human understanding, with some sort of disdain for every other knowledge except itself.

That he assumes this at all should have one questioning his thinking. He has reached the conclusion that science is not about knowledge but about power by starting from faulty premises like the agonistic language games heuristic, and bouncing along aimless trajectories unconnected to every segment that came before, arriving at something that none of these trajectories could logically lead to. Over and over again we see Lyotard's method of argument is to start from a political position treated as an axiom, and to use that vantage point to color his "philosophy". This is backwards.

Throughout the book is this thread of political discontentment about relationships between the system and the individuals who make it up, about a controlling shadow entity (the university, the state, the system, the corporation, science, capitalism, games) and its use of its human subjects for the furtherance of its own ends. It ties into this questions of legitimacy of decisions made for or by the collective. This is never expanded on or explained, never discussed in detail, it remains as a present but obscure thread that he constantly tugs on when he needs to make a point that his normal routine is unable to.

Where does all of this leave us? What should we make of Lyotard’s book? Lyotard himself, long after publishing it, came to see it much like I see it now: Not very good, ignorant of science, filled with fabrications, reading like a parody. It is intellectually empty. This can only inspire bad, sloppy, useless thinking.
Profile Image for Raghad.
64 reviews11 followers
May 11, 2018
بعضٌ من الاقتباسات :

السؤال الاستثيقي الحديث ليس : ما هو الجميل، بل : ما الفن و( الأدب)؟

من السهل أن نجد جمهوراً للأعمال التوليفة. فحينما يقوم الفن بالكيتش فإنه يغازل الفوضى التي تسود "ذوق" الهاوي.

في غياب المعايير الاستثيقية، يبقى من الممكن والمفيد قياس قيمة الأعمال بالفائدة التي تجنيها.

البحث الفني والأدبي مهدد مرتين، من طرف الثقافة السياسية من ناحية، ومن طرف سوق الفن والكتاب من ناحية أخرى.

إن الإحساس السامي، الذي هو إحساس بالسامي أيضاً، بالنسبة إلى كانط هو انفعال قوي وملتبس: يحمل في الوقت ذاته لذة وألماً. أو بصيغة أفضل: هو اللذة التي تنبثق من الألم.

إن العقلانية لا تكون معقولة إلا حينما تقبل أن العقل متعدد، مثلما يقول أرسطو عن الوجود أنه يذكر بعدة أشكال.

إن العمل الأدبي والفني يقبل وفي الوقت نفسه يُلزم بأن يستمع له بجميع الأشكال الممكنة. إن العمل لا يعاني من فرض " منهج " للقراءة، يحدد له معنى محدد ويسمح بتصنيفه لمرة واحدة دائمة. إن العمل على العكس ينتظر ما يسميه Harold Bloom بالقراءة السيئة، قراءة معارضة للتقاليد الموجودة.
Profile Image for Andrew.
2,027 reviews727 followers
September 15, 2014
Its main saving grace is its brevity. For the parts that discuss science, I found myself perpetually asking "really?" While certain, small insights seem wise, I found the concept of the "decline of the grand narrative," which stands at the centerpiece of the work, to be a total pretention. Indeed, Lyotard considered the work a failure, yet it still stands as his most famous work stateside. Eh, fuck this book.
Profile Image for Sharad Pandian.
411 reviews138 followers
October 30, 2019
I'm really not an expert on the genres this 1979 book draws from, but some of the other reviews seem so beside the point, I include a critical summary:

A summary in my words, in three parts

A. Narratives vs. science

Lyotard makes a distinction between narratives and science, where narratives are apparently the manner in which older societies organized themselves. By focusing on "popular sayings, proverbs, and maxims," he argues that it is narratives that consume/elide history, while Science preserves it, bringing along with it baggage from previous work:

[For narratives,] In their prosody can be recognized the mark of that strange temporalization that jars the golden rule of our knowledge: "never forget"... The narratives' reference may seem to belong to the past, but in reality it is always contemporaneous with the act of recitation (22)

[For Science, the] knowledge that has accumulated in the form of already accepted statements can always be challenged. But conversely, any new statement that contradicts a previously approved statement regarding the same referent can be accepted as valid only if it refutes the previous statement by producing arguments and proofs. The game of science thus implies a diachronic temporality, that is, a memory and a project. The current sender of a scientific statement is supposed to be acquainted with previous statements concerning its referent (bibliography) and, only proposes a new statement on the subject if it differs from the previous ones. (26)

[Critical comments:

Lyotard's distinction seems based on an idealized view of science drawn from philosophers, like when he says: "A statement of science gains no validity from the fact of being reported. Even in the case of pedagogy, it is taught only if it is still verifiable in the present through argumentation and proof. In itself, it is never secure from falsification." (26)

At the same time, there are many notions of "narrative" which don't dispense with history that easily - consider the academic field of History or judicial traditions that are definitely non-static like rabbinic Judaism. While these might place themselves as continuing in the line of those who came before, scientists certainly see themselves as standing on the shoulders of giants too, so not sure that's enough for a distinction based on history. There's also a risk of equivocation - although the narratives Lyotard focuses to make his point about time are like aphorisms, he later includes television appearances by scientists as narratives too (27). These don't in any obvious way have the same relationship to time as the aphorism.

The supposed historic distinction between narratives and science isn't supported by a detailed historic analysis, of course]

B. Three narratives of legitimation of Science

For Lyotard, while each science should be thought of as a distinct language game (drawing on Wittgenstein), each science still requires a narrative for its own legitimations

[An aside:

Interestingly, in his introduction, Frederic Jameson writes "Legitimation becomes visible as a problem and an object of study only at the point in which it is called into question" (viii), while for Lyotard, "It is not inconceivable that the recourse to narrative is inevitable, at least to the extent that the language game of science desires its statements to be true but does not have the resources to legitimate their truth on its own. If this is the case, it is necessary to admit an irreducible need for history understood, as outlined above - not as a need to remember or to project (a need for historicity, for accent), but on the contrary as a need to forget" (28).

For Jameson, what is a contingent state of needing legitimation seems for Lyotard to always come with the territory. In addition, the claim that narratives are associated with forgetfulness is assumed again, and as before I think this needs support, although it might be on to something]

Lyotard argues that there are two narratives of legitimation that used to be available:

1. Science as liberation for people, where "The subject... is humanity as the hero of liberty" (31)

2. A philosophical metanarrative that unites not only the different disciplines, but located each with respect to the other, and located all of them in relation to appropriate action.

The argument has in mind Hegel, the setting up of the university of Berlin, and Humboldt (33), for example:

...the Bildung aimed for by Humboldt's project, which consists not only in the acquisition of learning by individuals, but also in the training of a fully legitimated subject of knowledge and society. Humboldt therefore invokes a Spirit (what Fichte calls Life), animated by three ambitions, or better, by a single, threefold aspiration: "that of deriving everything from an original principle" (corresponding to scientific activity), "that of relating everything to an ideal" (governing ethical and social practice), and "that of unifying this principle and this ideal in a single Idea" (ensuring that the scientific search for true causes always coincide with the pursuit of just ends in moral and political life). This ultimate synthesis constitutes the legitimate subject. (33)

In a complicated way, unlike #1 where science's legitimation was for man's sake, this is more science for its own sake:

Research and the spread of learning are not justified by invoking a principle of usefulness. The idea is not at all that science should serve the interests of the State and/or civil society. The humanist principle that humanity rises up in dignity and freedom through knowledge is left by the wayside. German idealism has recourse to a metaprinciple that simultaneously grounds the development of learning, of society, and of the State in the realization of the "life" of a Subject, called "divine Life" by Fichte and "Life of the spirit" by Hegel. In this perspective, knowledge first finds legitimacy within itself, and it is knowledge that is entitled to say what the State and what Society are. But it can only play this role by changing levels, by ceasing to be simply the positive knowledge of its referent (nature, society, the State, etc.), becoming in addition to that the knowledge of the knowledge of the referent - that is, by becoming speculative. In the names "Life" and "Spirit," knowledge names itself. (34-5)

True knowledge, in this perspective, is always indirect knowledge; it is composed of reported statements that are incorporated into the metanarrative of a subject that guarantees their legitimacy. (35)

The way I read Lyotard is that he thinks both of these narratives have been delegitimized, with the implication now that: "science plays its own game; it is incapable of legitimating the other language games. The game of prescription, for example, escapes it. But above all, it is incapable of legitimating itself, as speculation assumed it could." (40)

Although Wittgenstein himself did not see legitimation as involving performativity (performance/power?) work is legitimized. I think by "performativity", what is meant is simply performance/success, particularly success in the ability to produce consensus about reality, through the production of reality itself. After all, earlier Lyotard draws from Bachelard to state:

a referent is that which is susceptible to proof and can be used as evidence in a debate. Not: I can prove something because reality is the way I say it is. But: as long as I can produce proof, it is permissible to think that reality is the way I say it is. (24)

This changes education:

If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted), higher education becomes a subsystem of the social system, and the same performativity criterion is applied to each of these problems. The desired goal becomes the optimal contribution of higher education to the best performativity of the social system. (48)

What is transmitted in higher learning? In the case of professional training, and limiting ourselves to a narrowly functionalist point of view, an organized stock of established knowledge is the essential thing that is transmitted. The application of new technologies to this stock may have a considerable impact on the medium of communication. It does not seem absolutely necessary that the medium be a lecture delivered in person by a teacher in front of silent students, with questions reserved for sections or "practical work" sessions run by an assistant. 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. (50)

C. Making "systems" complicated

However, Lyotard seems to want to make a distinction between enhancing productivity as a legitimation narrative, and the actual possibility of production-enhancement using bureaucratic control. He insists that total control would reduce productivity of the system. This explains "the weakness of state and socioeconomic bureaucracies: they stifle the systems or subsystems they control and asphyxiate themselves in the process." (55-56)

Therefore technocrats who pretend to speak on behalf of a whole system, made up of multiple, incommensurable language games are simply demonstrating hubris: "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. If we look at the pragmatics of science, we learn that such an identification is impossible." (63)

[As someone alien to the tradition of German idealism, this seems to be a lot of a-historic history deployed to support (what seems to me to be) equivocating over-generalizations. In addition, if the sections of this summary seems somewhat disconnected, that's because that's my understanding. For my part, either because of sytlistic failings or my own, I find the text insufficiently clear or careful to be of too much value, at least now (since so much great work has been done in the Social Studies of Science), although the question of how culture/economics shapes knowledge is still fascinating and important.

The introductory essay by Jameson was incredibly valuable to place this work in context - when read after reading Lyotard's test. For example, he points out that Lyotard locates postmodernism too close to high modernism, indicating disagreement over how to conceptualize postmodernism.]
Profile Image for H..
140 reviews
September 5, 2021
một cuốn sách khó đọc với mình, không phải do Lyotard trình bày khó hiểu, mà do mình quá thiếu kiến thức nền về: lý thuyết trò chơi ngôn ngữ và các phân tích khác về hệ thống của Wittgenstein; ngữ dụng học; nguyên lý bất toàn của Godel; lý thuyết hệ thống; lý thuyết bất ổn định; nghiên cứu văn hoá dân gian và triết học giáo dục vân vân. Cuốn này ý tưởng không nhiều, một bản báo cáo phê bình những sai lầm khi tri thức cố gắng hợp thức hoá bằng các đại tự sự [phép biện chứng tinh thần, Thông diễn học về ý nghĩa, Sự giải phóng chủ thể lý tính và chủ thể lao động] và chứng minh sự cáo chung của các đại tự sự trong hệ thống dưới sự phát triển của toán học, vật lý học hiện đại, triết học ngôn ngữ, tư bản tái trỗi dậy, khoa học máy tính và truyền thông. Phê bình giải pháp đạo đức học diễn ngôn như là sự đồng thuận trong tranh luận của Habermas và đề ra giải pháp là giải quyết bằng nghịch biện. Ý tưởng thì không nhiều nhưng nội dung dẫn chứng, ví dụ chứng minh quá rộng và lớn, nằm ngoài tầm hiểu biết nên mình khó nắm bắt và hiểu hết. Sau này sẽ đọc lại.
Profile Image for John.
Author 1 book7 followers
September 14, 2009
Lyotard spends the far majority of the main work describing society's move away from the two modern metanarratives: speculation and emancipation, representing the twin desires of knowing the unknown and knowing justice. The modern, scientific world has drawn on one or another of these two narratives in an attempt to legitimize its knowledge of the world, only to find that it cannot do so within itself. In other words, the modern world has been so concerned with creating a tight, logical totality of knowledge, never realizing that such a project is impossible to attain.

The postmodern world then is that which seeks to present the unpresentable. There's an inherent kind of humility in the approach, a recognition that all knowledge is not available to us, that we will constantly be reforming our perspective on our world. So Lyotard concludes then with a call to eschew totality and "activate differences." For it is through the differences, not the totalities, he argues, that we will enhance our knowledge of the world.
Profile Image for Z..
27 reviews3 followers
April 6, 2021
the last french philosopher who could actually write in a readable manner
Profile Image for John Pistelli.
Author 8 books274 followers
September 10, 2021
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.
Profile Image for noblethumos.
555 reviews32 followers
April 19, 2023
The Postmodern Condition is a book by French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, published in 1979. The book is a critique of the modern metanarratives or grand narratives, which he believes have lost their credibility in the postmodern era.

Lyotard argues that modernity's belief in progress, reason, and science has led to a crisis in knowledge, which he calls incredulity towards metanarratives. In other words, people no longer believe in the overarching stories that give meaning to their lives, such as the Enlightenment narrative of progress and the Marxist narrative of class struggle.

According to Lyotard, the postmodern condition is characterized by a distrust of all forms of authority, including knowledge and power. In this context, he argues that knowledge is no longer about discovering universal truths but is instead a matter of creating and using local, contingent, and fragmented knowledge.

The Postmodern Condition had a significant impact on postmodern theory, which rejected the modernist idea of a single, objective reality and emphasized the importance of subjectivity, plurality, and difference. It also had a significant influence on the development of postmodern art and literature, which rejected the traditional notion of a fixed meaning and embraced ambiguity and fragmentation.

Profile Image for g.
46 reviews18 followers
February 10, 2008
The Postmodern Condition is about the dominance of scientific knowledge over that of narrative, and the related death of meta-narratives. The performativity principle underlined by late capitalism plays a crucial role in the subordination of the narrative form simply because narration is not instrumental in creating capital. Lyotard argues that narration seeks to consume the past and generate a way of forgetting, while on the other hand, scientific knowledge focuses on the prevalent shortages of the contemporary and strives to fill in the gaps, thereby becoming a significant source of profits. Yet how does this shift in the shape of knowledge contribute to the postmodern condition? Is the break between the modern and the postmodern really about the forms of knowledge? The argument that this transformation of knowledge is a departure from the modern fails to be convincing.

In his essay “The Storyteller” dated 1936, Walter Benjamin touches upon the issue of narrative knowledge that Lyotard concentrates on.

The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a "symptom of decay," let alone a "modern" symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it impossible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.

This concomitant symptom that Lyotard continues tracing does not emerge after modernity. It is a symptom that becomes apparent with the rise of Reason and the demise of religion, and is characteristic of 1930s. T.S Eliot, in his famous poem, “The Rock”, written in 1934, also protests against the decreasing value of wisdom:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

The mourning modernity of 1930s is marked by secularism, and hence is a eulogy for the death of religion per se. During this period, the new secularist values of modernity have not yet been exhausted, and meta-narratives that become utopias in the ‘postmodern’ age, are still available to the critiques of modernity. Thus Marxism and anarchism remain alternative realities for the people of 1930s, even though they cease to be credible for the frustrated generation of revolutionaries that Lyotard is a part of. It is in this era that capitalism acquires a truly global shape and the emergence of post-Fordist production relegates the dreams of the proletarian revolution. In The Postmodern Condition Lyotard is mourning not for the death of religion, or tradition, but for the removal of hope from the world.

However, I agree with Jameson’s criticism that Lyotard’s mourning is in some senses premature: the prevalence of contradiction is not a new development – it is the push factor in Hegel’s dialectics, and goes hand in hand with capitalism. Yes, the proletariat has taken a different shape with post-Fordism, but the power dynamics that effected Marxism are still present, and it is these power dynamics that have to be attended to. Eventually, the solution to the problems of late capitalism may not be universal, but mending each particular will give the universal a new face, thereby ousting the need for a meta-narrative in unifying against the imbalances of today’s system.

131 reviews4 followers
July 25, 2016
"By the end of the Discourse on Method, Descartes is already asking for laboratory funds. A new problem appears: devices that optimize the performance of the human body for the purpose of producing proof require additional expenditures. No money, no proof-and that means no verification of statements and no truth. The games of scientific language become the games of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. An equation between wealth, efficiency, and truth is thus established."

Not five stars because Jameson's foreword isn't helpful at all, and he seems more interested in articulating the idea that Lyotard didn't understand Habermas than he is anything else. But the argument with Habermas is like, the whole book. So the foreword tells you that the book is misguided, but thankfully saved by Jameson's foreword. What a piece.
Profile Image for angel.
52 reviews18 followers
May 7, 2022
Terminar un libro de posmodernismo filosófico acerca de el estado del saber un viernes en la noche después de una semana de romper con tu pareja e irte de la casa es igual a: no entendí el último capítulo producto de la champaña
Profile Image for VII.
240 reviews28 followers
August 8, 2019
It seems like post-modernism is a current that I am beginning to enjoy. The only problem is that they can't help becoming sociological studies with proposals about what should happen, while I usually like my philosophy more abstract and more focused on the individual. This book aims to deal with the status of knowledge in postmodern societies, by focusing on the narratives that run through it and which without them, scientific knowledge is basically blind. It's basically the old idea that science is a tool that has to be guided by values. He argues that the narrative of our age is supposed to be perfomativity (efficiency), but that this idea is mistaken or at least that science can't proceed with that value. I enjoyed a lot his analysis but I have some reservations about his constructive part and some arguments. Nevertheless, it's pretty impressive how close his predictions were for some things, even though he wrote in 1979, using terms like terminals and data banks.

For Lyotard, postmodern societies lead towards the computerization of knowledge and to its exchange as a commodity. However, besides what we know as knowledge; scientific statements, there is another form of knowledge that science needs: the narrative. It's the problem of legitimization or of values. It's asking why that's good or why it's a worthy goal. This used to happen with narratives that show us what's good, provide variation with their non-denotative statements and bypass the problem of legitimation because for them, to repeat the story the way you have heard it in the past is enough for earning legitimacy. On the contrary, with scientific knowledge the person who listens can reject the statements if the proof is not good enough and there is never a proof of a proof but simply consensus. And these two forms of knowledge are both necessary (without a narrative, science is begging the question) but also incompatible because they use different criteria. It's not that in narrative knowledge there is an embryonic form of scientific knowledge. And the loss of meaning people are lamenting about is the loss of narratives.

After a brief period of positivism when there was an attempt to abandon narratives, science made the problem of legitimation not a problem but a part of the scientific game; a heuristic drive of it. Before that it rested in two grand narratives, one more political, one more philosophical. The first is knowledge as emancipation. It's the idea that knowledge will set humans free, so we should have basic public education for all. The other is closer to Hegel's spirit. It creates a meta-narrator, knowledge itself that will determine not only science, but also ethics and politics. For this tradition positivistic knowledge free of values is not knowledge. The first was eventually more successful. It views knowledge as showing what's possible but it is up to the people to decide what to do.

But neither of those narratives work now. What actually defines a postmodern society is suspicion towards narratives. For the philosophical narrative to work we need to presuppose there is a spirit and without it it's nonsense. For the other, there is no way to convert a denotative statement (what is) to a prescriptive one (what to do). Now the problem of legitimation is solved by performativity. As mentioned, legitimation involves making arguments and finding proofs and it's now part of science itself. In other words the criteria that make an argument acceptable and the axioms that we take are part of the discussion. And progress is either making a move in the established game of science (Lyotard likes Wittgenstein's terminology that describes everything we do as language games) or changing the rules of the game. So the principle of a universal metalanguage is replaced by a principle of plurality. Proofs also require some agreement with reality but with what method can we observe the supposed fact? And this is where technology comes in and provides us with the value of efficiency. And it seems true that increased perfomativity makes you most likely to be right. Then, by mastering “reality” with technology you can get de facto legitimation for juridical, ethical and political issues too. It's a self-legitimating system where by having technology, knowledge and perfomativity you have access to better decisions and by having those you legitimate technology and performativity.

This also affects education, orienting it towards producing experts in emerging fields (computer science, logic, mathematics). The humanities and liberal arts are neglected and knowledge is no longer an end in itself. The relevant question is not “is it true?” but “is it saleable?” or “does it increase perfomativity?” Teachers might be replaced by terminals and the relevant skill becomes interrogation, or how to find the relevant piece of knowledge in the data banks (how to google). Or when information becomes perfect then the skill becomes how to connect data that were previously thought as independent, imagination. Finding new games.

Now Lyotard wants to argue that what expands knowledge is not perfomativity but inventing new rules and new games that if they are interesting perfomativity will follow. Performance implies a highly stable and predictable system with variables than can always be predicted but prediction like that is a practical impossibility because of the energy needed and because control makes a system filled with negative feedback. It's also a theoretical impossibility because of ...quantum physics, chaos theory, Brownian movements and fractals (I am a little suspicious about the science behind all these, but this part actually shows that despite all his talk about language games, he leans toward scientific realism and his is not that relativistic (common accusations)).

Finally, he thinks that despite losing all the big narratives, we still need a smaller one. He doesn't accepts Habermas' one that is based on agreement because it's still the ideal of emancipation and it can't work anymore, neither Lymann's who sees agreement as a tool for the goal of power. He thinks there can be legitimation based on paralogy; the denial of established rules on what counts as knowledge. Consensus is an horizon that's never reached. If it is then someone will invent a new game to keep things interesting. And Luhmann's proposal is actually dangerous as it makes the decision makers, the technocrats to identify with the system and dehumanize the present for some distant better future. But in reality nobody will abandon some interesting research topic because it doesn't conform to some notion of performativity. Science is about the generation of new ideas.

As for whether this antimodel of science can apply to society, the answer is no because there aren't uniform rules as there are in science, but only a multiplicity of language games. That's another reason why Habermas' agreement can't work, because it assumes it's possible to create this uniformity and because it assumes that the goal of dialogue is consensus, when in reality it's paralogy, the creation of a new game. So his proposal is first to realize that all these games are different and renounce terror and second that the rules of the game that is played must be local, that they are agreed by the present players and are subject to be cancelled (both are actually similar to what Rorty wrote ten years later, without mentioning him at all). And this is where society is going anyway, with flexibility and temporary political, professional, emotional, family and even sexual contracts. This increases the recognition and responsibility of those who create the games and the temporal rules, and the most important effect is what validates the rules: the quest for paralogy. It's true that the computerization of society would be the dream of those who want to control society towards performativity and would surely involve terror, but it will also increase the discourse on metaprescriptions by supplying them with knowledge about the games. And to follow the latter, the public should have access to the data so that it becomes a game of perfect information but not a zero-sum one because there will always be new games, as knowledge is inexhaustible.

There is also an Appendix where he argues against the calls for order or unity of art and in favor of the avant-garde. He notes that nowadays art is about asking what's art and against pictorial representation, mentions how the multiculturalism of capitalism makes an “everything goes” aesthetic, but also accommodates all needs. The more interesting part is tying avant-garde with the (Kantian) notion of the sublime. The sublime is conceiving something but failing to find a way to present it. For example, simplicity is a concept that no object can ever satisfy. And he finds in Proust (because his hero is the inner consciousness of time) and Joyce (because the unpresentable manifests in his vocabulary) examples of this. The postmodern searches for new presentations only to show the unpresentable.
Profile Image for Krishna Avendaño.
Author 2 books46 followers
May 26, 2020
Los occidentales han dejado atrás el tiempo de lo abyecto para entrar de lleno en el reino de lo ridículo. Años después de pergeñar este libelo ilegible, Lyotard admitió que se lo había inventado casi todo, que no había leído prácticamente ni un libro de los que había citado —lo cual es revelador si se tiene en cuenta que hay casi más notas al pie que texto original—. En cierto modo, el chiste literario de Lyotard es una perversa obra maestra que logró, primero, engañar al gobierno canadiense que le encargó el texto y más tarde al mundillo académico.

El problema es que, a pesar de que no pueda considerarse La condición posmoderna como un esfuerzo intelectual legítimo, Lyotard de verdad creía en su parodia. Qué es la sátira si no una verdad exagerada. También hay que ser honestos y reconocer que, entre toda la sopa de letras, uno puede hallar un par de observaciones agudas. Lyotard proponía desechar los metarrelatos (los grandes discursos sociales) en favor de una multitud de microrrelatos. O lo que es lo mismo: había que rechazar la tradición y los consensos por medio de la articulación de verdades relativas. En otras palabras, Lyotard invitaba a deconstruir la normalidad para suplantarla por lo que fuera. Una masa amorfa de pensamientos, de maneras de autopercibirse, donde todo menos la razón tiene la validez.

Desde luego, no admitía, acaso porque ni siquiera era consciente de ello, que pugnaba por el establecimiento de una nueva hegemonía. Dicho y hecho, el relativismo progresista ha devenido en el discurso predilecto de las élites públicas y privadas. Es el himno de los gobiernos democráticos. No porque crean en la retórica posmoderna con el fervor del sociólogo de Harvard que escribe sendos papers sobre las identidades líquidas y las nuevas masculinidades. El Poder se sirve de lo que le conviene para crecer. Esta agenda nebulosa es la que hoy día genera mayores dividendos.
Profile Image for   Luna .
265 reviews16 followers
February 14, 2016
Postmodernism, What now?

After the fall of the grand narratives, and the establishment of chaos as the philosophical reference to 'small truths,’ how can we succeed to find something accurate enough to last a long long time?

For Lyotard, the age of the ‘universal’ the ‘one-transcending-truth’ ‘I-understood-it-all’ fell down to let us swaying on unstable grounds. So what now? Will we rebuild once again our way to truth, a universal truth even? Or will we stay busy with local truths?
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