Blesok no. 33, July-August, 2003
The Postmodern Theoretic and Aesthetic System of Jean Francois Lyotard
Viewed Through the Prism of the Political - the postmodern as an unfinished project – the term of the political -
For many is well-known that the postmodern thinking abandons the constitutive link very significant and a link of a key value for the discourse of the Modern – the link between the history and mind. The Postmodern claims that the Modern had its own end, because, basically, it was the project that can’t be realized, because of its basic premises of believing in the so-called great meta-narratives, which is actually an expression for the great stories that dominate the Western culture and civilization. These great stories, every each one of them in its own way, emerge and transform through history.
As first, can the term Postmodern get equaled with the known logic paradox of Lyotard for the past-future tense (post modo), or to be more accurate – with the known claim that the Postmodern precedes the Modern, what implicates that one art deed must had its creation, must to claim its own rules, and even then – some secondary meta-discourse to analyze them (and actually to confirm them)? Or, maybe, the postmodern aesthetics that closes its eyes in front of the Modern, is just lost in it… Is the literary Postmodern, in many things, a successor of the radical Modern, as Andreas Kilb claims? However, post isn’t some come back movement, or neither some flash back, nor some feed back, but, as Lyotard claims – an “ana” process: analysis, anamnesis, analogy, anamorfosis, etc., which elaborates “the primary oblivion”.
So, Jean Francois Lyotard claims that the Postmodern isn’t going backwards, but an anamorfosis of the Modern in crisis, but Jürgen Habermas claims that the Postmodern is going backwards and that the abandoning of the Modern is, actually, the Postmodern’s crisis. Mauricio Ferraris tried to end this dispute considering that it is only a big misunderstanding in question here. According to him, at Lyotard, there are two notions for the Postmodern: the historical and the meta-historical understanding of the Postmodern.
Above all, Lyotard recognizes three preconditions for the modern cognition: evoking the meta-narratives for legitimizing of the basic claims – the inevitable result of (de)legitimizing and of exclusion, and the wish/desire for the homogenous epistemological and ethical/moral regulations. The Postmodern cognition, then again, is against the meta-narratives; this avoids the great issues/subjects of building the foundations and of creating the legitimizing, and it suggests the principles of heterogeneity, plurality, constant innovation and the pragmatic construction of local rules and regulations among those who would agree; so, according to that, he suggests the micro-politics.
Anyway, that’s why the shortest definition of the Postmodern that we could extract while reading Lyotard from this aspect, is that the Postmodern represents “the disbelief in the meta-narratives”. By the way, under the term “meta-narratives” are understood all those social discourses with which some social praxis is being justified and legitimized. This strategy of the Postmodernism is the most disputed with the arguments that it is de-legitimizing of certain praxis only to install/maintain some other; then, that it is an annulling of the numerators and replacing them with the denominators. That risk always exists, but usually the postmodern authors accent only their deconstruction role: the breaking of the firm forms, not allowing of (any) certain practice to get totalized and to become a regime. The Postmodernism always intervenes upon those spots where certain – even the best ideal – had become a mean of totalizing processes and violence upon the Other. That’s exactly why the Postmodernism isn’t a meta-narrative, because it is non-canonic, inclusive, in constant tension, in some kind of a cramp, or in some process.
The postmodern literature (as well as all other postmodern art) goes in parallel with the theory discourse and it isn’t possible for it to exist without that discourse. It installs and maintains some kind of identity between the literature and the awareness about the literature. In that sense, Lyotard wrote: “The artist or the writer of the Postmodern is in the position of a philosopher”. But, the Postmodernism, both affirms and negates them at the same time, namely, it affirms and disputes the very terms upon which it bases its theoretical discourse.
Basing his political philosophy upon the knowledge that the “small narratives” has the ability to dispute the authoritarian systems, Lyotard thinks that even the marginalized individuals has the power to make a positive breach in turning around the repressive social systems. This comes from the notion that, according to Lyotard, the legitimization of any “great narrative” (the cognition, for instance) isn’t the issue of the truthful nature of the evidence, but of the institutions’ power, of the institutions that manipulate with these concepts. That’s exactly why, the postmodern state is being characterized, by Lyotard, as the struggle between the “great and small narratives” about who will control the knowledge and the means of transferring that knowledge.
The libertinism of this Lyotard’s thought is obvious and without any doubt, because he thinks that together with the destruction of the institutions’ monopoles (the monopoles of the “great narratives”), the liberation of the “small narratives” will happen also, namely – their liberation out of the authoritarian control; but, on the other hand, we also must consider the political “naivety” of this kind of opinion. All this shows us that the Postmodernism is more of a summa of attitudes related to the authority and the authoritarianism than a certain and coherent philosophy system. In such kind of common/similar/alike attitudes, the focus is put on the sole individual, the individual surrounded and ruled by the systems and the theories (the “great narratives”). Because of that, the postmodern artists, architects, musicians and writers feel free to relate completely liberated towards the traditional art values, deconstructing them by their own will and expectation, often with much irony.
The attitude of mistrust toward the meta-narratives (and among them, of course, the Modern), the refusal of accepting any authorities – in the aesthetics – leads toward a free enterprising and overtaking of the Sophists attitudes, claims and principles (Protagora, Gorgia), but also is the same with the principles and attitudes of Immanuel Kant, with which the aesthetics that we can extract from the Lyotard’s theory thought presents a face of some “anti-aesthetics” that critically behaves toward the very aesthetics itself, and toward the exact aesthetical terminology, as well; rejecting some things (the beautiful), and deconstructing the others (the illuminating). Lyotard, as a “postmodern anti-aesthetician”, in that way even himself seem like some postmodern artist who are completely satisfied and happy about the fact that they can (“they're allowed”) to deconstruct the old styles and art forms, denying to cast out those assets in such sharp and irreversible way as the modernists used to do. Putting a stand against what he calls “a terrorist” and a totalitarian” theory, Lyotard firmly favors the variety of the discourses and positions against any notion of one & single, uniting theory.
This significant author begins his innovative way with the idea of the de-centered ergo-existence. For him, it can never be an owner of knowledge. Lyotard considers that the ergo-existences are “always & already” presented as a part of the social links and relations; they are always & already a function of the language, where the language isn't some monolith discourse, but a quantum of different ones without any “great narrative” that would link the different and various lingual “games”: all what exist there – is just a variety of elements. The subject is an open narrative with a free ending and that's why every description of the ergo-existence suppresses its radical plurality.
This de-centering of the ergo-existence has significant consequences upon the social relations. Lyotard operates with the belief that every social theory, which presumes the social (cultural or linguistic) elements as mutually conditioned in constant ratio, or that their wholeness id determined, actually encourages a “regime of terror”. Under “terror”, Lyotard understands all what should consist or limit the endless nature of that ergo-existence.
Also, for Lyotard, the goal of the dialogue can't (and mustn't) be a consensus: “The heterogeneity makes the consensus impossible”, because the consensus is “only a certain condition/state of a discussion, but not its ending, or its final end”. To be more precise, the end should be the paralogy, the disagreement.
His polemics and accenting of the disensus imply that conflicts exist even within the language, and that the provoking and challenging of the existing discourses is quite important component of the social criticism and transformation. Lyotard rejects the macro-theory, and even makes a fetish of the differences between the paralogy, rejecting and revealing the bad sides of the totality, the consensus and the universality. In that way, the Lyotard's postmodern theory affirms the division as a principle of justness in which is allowed – for all – to discuss and enter the field of the social polemics.
In opposite of the modern concepts of righteousness that incline toward creating of righteous society through the macro-structures' transformation, based upon some general theory of righteousness, Lyotard suggests certain “righteousness of the multiplicities” which is rooted within the micro-politics. Lyotard does distinct out of the other postmodern theoreticians by his focusing upon the ethical and political discourse of righteousness as a main center of his postmodern politics.
So, the Lyotard's concept of righteousness as a “righteousness of the multiplicities” intervenes as a border patrol at the frontiers of every lingual “game” and maintains the essential freedom of it, and on the other hand, it eliminates the repression. To define the righteousness as a multiplicity means to forbid the terror with which a certain system tries to impose over the other ones, imposing itself as a dominant (regular) game. This could generate a great injustice – as some of his contemporaries note to him – because with that, the variety would be shut down, and Lyotard does work on the preventing and banning exactly of this kind of injustice. The moral law (in Kantian sense) that Lyotard searches for, is the one which within itself contains the criteria of the universal law, and that imposes, as he himself admits, the returning to the idea of the unity and totality.
Actually, it's the same error both sides: if one generalizes the universality and totality, or if one generalizes the variety and difference. It's simply the error of the extreme approach. Lyotard falls into this trap, trapping himself into the false dichotomy: the relativistic pluralism or the terroristic consensus! So he universalizes the difference, from which emerges his incapability to imagine the consensus and the community as anything else but as totalizing, meaning – terrorizing. At Lyotard we can't see the division line between the terrorist-like and non-terrorist-like consensus' forms, namely, the forms of unity and of community. The universalized difference disables them. At Lyotard, with no doubt whatsoever, looking through the prism of the term of political, the ideas of community, inter-subjectivity and understanding don't even exist. In that direction, Lyotard, also, likes to get the politics down to some ethical idea of the righteousness, although, on other hand, he fails in his efforts to develop any ethic in his works. Such non-presence of it, within his entire work, according to the numerous researchers is, namely, a characteristic common to entire postmodern theory.
The problem with the Jean Francois Lyotard's view is – according to the great number of scientific studies recently – within the fact that when he supposes that the consensus must (necessarily) be the weapon of the terror. The attitude of many other postmodern protagonists seems more logical that the consensus may, also, be a state of the essential agreement, and that it isn't just a simple silencing of the variety: the consensus is necessary for any applicable politic. According to some recent scientific stands, no politic is possible within the frames of the Lyotard's system – a system where the politic is regulated through the idea of the variety – because he offers Kant as a model, and that is the model which simply refuses any subordination with the radical variety required from the postmodern aesthetics and of the differences' politics.
Unlike the Lyotard's one-sided glorying of the differences, fragmentariness and the disensus in the lingual “games”, a large number of his contemporaries claim that in the theoretical and in the political areas both, sometimes is useful to accent the differences, the plurality and the heterogeneity, while in some other contexts can be appropriate to look for generalities and common issues and interests.
And, at the end, can we have an idea of a consensus that would – at the same time – respect the idea of variety? We are at the stand that these two ideas are compatible, until we base the politics of the differences upon the variable understanding of the “subjects in a community”. For us, that can be only the challenge for the times to come, in order for us to consider and understand our situation, so we can be able better to understand and comprehend the situation and the conditions that surround us.
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3. Хејбер, Хони Ферн. Отаде постмодерната политика: Лиотар, Рорти, Фуко., Институт за демократија, солидарност и цивилно општество, Скопје, 2002.
4. Даглас Келнер; Стивен Бест, Постмодерна теорија, Култура, Скопје, 1996
5. Џепаровски, Иван. Уметничкото дело, Култура, Скопје, 1998.
6. Алаѓозовски, Роберт. Обвинети за постмодернизам, Магор, Скопје, 2003.
Translated by: Petar Volnarovski
1. But besides everything, the concept of righteousness as multiplicity, by itself, illegitimately has being used as an absolute instead of a relative term – which actually is. This introduces Lyotard in many difficulties, when he tries to legitimate its absolute status.