Jean-François Lyotard  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Jean-François Lyotard (August 10 1924 – April 21 1998) was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is best-known for his The Postmodern Condition, an articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition.

The collapse of the "Grand Narrative"

Lyotard's work is characterised by a persistent opposition to universals, meta-narratives, and generality. He is fiercely critical of many of the 'universalist' claims of the Enlightenment, and several of his works serve to undermine the fundamental principles that generate these broad claims. Most famously, in La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979), he argued that our age (with its postmodern condition) is marked by an 'incredulity towards meta-narratives'. These meta-narratives - sometimes 'grand narratives' - are grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard argues that we have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. We have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micronarratives. For this concept Lyotard draws from the notion of 'language-games' found in the work of Wittgenstein.

In Lyotard's works, the term 'language games', sometimes also called 'phrase regimens', denotes the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation are created.

This becomes more crucial in Au juste: Conversations (Just Gaming) (1979) and Le Différend (The Differend) (1983), which develop a postmodern theory of justice. It might appear that the atomisation of human beings implied by the notion of the micronarrative and the language game suggests a collapse of ethics. It has often been thought that universality is a condition for something to be a properly ethical statement: 'thou shalt not steal' is an ethical statement in a way that 'thou shalt not steal from Margaret' is not. The latter is too particular to be an ethical statement (what's so special about Margaret?); it is only ethical if it rests on a universal statement ('thou shalt not steal from anyone'). But universals are impermissible in a world that has lost faith in metanarratives, and so it would seem that ethics is impossible. Justice and injustice can only be terms within language games, and the universality of ethics is out of the window. Lyotard argues that notions of justice and injustice do in fact remain in postmodernism. The new definition of injustice is indeed to use the language rules from one 'phrase regimen' and apply them to another. Ethical behaviour is about remaining alert precisely to the threat of this injustice, of paying attention to things in their particularity and not enclosing them within abstract conceptuality. One must bear witness to the 'differend'.

The sublime

Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. Lyotard saw postmodernism as a latent tendency within thought throughout time and not a narrowly limited historical period. He favoured the startling and perplexing works of the high modernist avant-garde. In them he found a demonstration of the limits of our conceptuality, a valuable lesson for anyone too imbued with Enlightenment confidence. Lyotard has written extensively also on few contemporary artists of his choice: Valerio Adami, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Bracha Ettinger and Barnett Newman, as well as on Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky.

He developed these themes in particular by discussing the sublime. The "sublime" is a term in aesthetics whose fortunes revived under postmodernism after a century or more of neglect. It refers to the experience of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting wild and threatening sights like, for example, a massive craggy mountain, black against the sky, looming terrifyingly in our vision. A sublime is the conjunction of two opposed feelings, which makes it harder for us to see the injustice of it, or a solution to it.

Lyotard found particularly interesting the explanation of the sublime offered by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (sometimes Critique of the Power of Judgment). In this book, Kant explains this mixture of anxiety and pleasure in the following terms: there are two kinds of 'sublime' experience. In the 'mathematically' sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. More precisely, we experience a clash between our reason (which tells us that all objects are finite) and the imagination (the aspect of the mind that organizes what we see, and which sees an object incalculably larger than ourselves, and feels infinite). In the 'dynamically' sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than we, whose weight, force, scale could crush us without the remotest hope of our being able to resist it. (Kant stresses that if we are in actual danger, our feeling of anxiety is very different from that of a sublime feeling. The sublime is an aesthetic experience, not a practical feeling of personal danger.) This explains the feeling of anxiety.

What is deeply unsettling about the mathematically sublime is that the mental faculties that present visual perceptions to the mind are inadequate to the concept corresponding to it; in other words, what we are able to make ourselves see cannot fully match up to what we know is there. We know it's a mountain but we cannot take the whole thing into our perception. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation. With the dynamically sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and (in Kant's terms) noumenal beings as well. The body may be dwarfed by its power but our reason need not be. This explains, in both cases, why the sublime is an experience of pleasure as well as pain.

Lyotard is fascinated by this admission, from one of the philosophical architects of the Enlightenment, that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally. Some objects are simply incapable of being brought neatly under concepts. For Lyotard, in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, but drawing on his argument in The Differend, this is a good thing. Such generalities as 'concepts' fail to pay proper attention to the particularity of things. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we realise the inadequacy of the imagination and reason to each other. What we are witnessing, says Lyotard, is actually the differend; the straining of the mind at the edges of itself and at the edges of its conceptuality.

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