Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

The Postmodern Society

Before delving into his thoughts on postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard was a political activist with Marxist views in the 1950s and 1960s. However, he eventually transitioned into a non-Marxist philosopher of postmodernism. Postmodernism, for him, represented a fundamental break from the totalitarian thought represented by Marxism. Even before publishing the book entitled The Difference, he had already indicated the direction of his philosophical change. This work stands as his most important contribution to philosophy.

In 1954, he published his first book entitled La Phenomenologia, an introductory textbook explaining Husserl’s phenomenology. Despite being a Marxist follower, he remained critical and rejected dogmatic interpretations of Marx’s thoughts, such as Trotskyism and Stalinism. Lyotard officially declared his departure from Marxism, disillusioned with the Marxist movement’s failure to establish a just socialist society as promised in 1966.

On the other hand, Marxism sought to create a homogeneous culture, which Lyotard disagreed with. He believed that such a culture could only be realized through violence and human rights violations. For him, one of the characteristics of postmodern society is individualism and the freedom to be different from others, contrasting with the push for uniformity and violence associated with Marxist ideologies.

The Critique of Modern Philosophy

The term “postmodern” itself was first introduced in his famous book entitled The Postmodern Condition, published in 1979 and later translated into English in 1984. Since then, it has become the locus classicus for discussions on postmodernism in philosophy.

On the other hand, the book is a report requested by the University of Quebec Council of Experts on societies that have made advances in science and technology at the end of the 20th century. Apart from being asked to explain the impact that the development of information technology had on science at the end of the 20th century, he argues that there have been extraordinary developments and changes in knowledge, science, and education in the information society. These changes and developments have led humanity to a condition which he calls postmodern.

The Universal Discourse

Over the past forty years, cutting-edge science and technology have become increasingly closely linked to language, linguistic theories, cybernetic problems, computers, translation tools, information storage, and data banks. Technological transformations have had a significant impact on knowledge. The miniaturization and commercialization of machines have changed how knowledge is acquired, classified, created, and exploited. Lyotard also believes that the nature of knowledge cannot remain unchanged in the context of such significant transformations.

Lyotard’s thinking generally revolves around knowledge’s position in the information technology age, particularly how science is legitimized through grand narratives. The ideas of freedom, progress, and emancipation of the proletariat have experienced, like the grand narratives of faith, nationality, and religion, the same fate. In the scientific age, grand narratives become impossible, especially those about the role and validity of science itself. The fundamental aspect proposed by him is an attempt to make it impossible to build a universal discourse of reasoning, as believed by modernists.

The Knowledge of Computerized Age

The nature of knowledge cannot remain unchanged in the context of the available transformations. Inserting it into the new channel is operational only when a certain amount of information translates into specialized knowledge. Society can predict that everything in the knowledge domain will be unsolved but abandoned. New research directions will also determine the likelihood that computer languages will translate ongoing research. Knowledge users must now translate anything they want to create or learn into the language.

Significantly, the investigation of machine translation advancing computer hegemony will appear a certain logic. Thus, a particular set of prescriptions determines which statements hegemony can accept as knowledge statements. The idea that special knowledge is subject to the state, as society’s brain or mind, will become increasingly outdated as the force of the opposite principle increases. From this point of view, the problem of the relationship between state power and the economy will emerge with new urgency.

The Determination Maker

It is not difficult to describe that specialized knowledge circulates just as much as money circulates, even political interests or educational values. The relevant difference is no longer between knowledge and ignorance, but rather, as in the case of cash, between an understanding of paying in money and knowledge of investing. In other words, between units of knowledge exchanged in terms of the cost of living or day-to-day maintenance versus knowledge funds devoted to optimizing the performance of a project.

If that were the case, communicative transparency would equal liberalism. Liberalism does not impede the organized flow of money in single-channel decision-making. In contrast, the other channel is only suitable for paying debts. In the same way, one can imagine the flow of knowledge running through the same channels as above, some tracks reserved for decision-makers. Unlike decision-makers, other people make a habit of paying everyone’s perpetual debt to social bonds.

The Narrative Game

Scientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knowledge because it always competes with other forms of knowledge. Jean-François Lyotard refers to this as the narrative conditions of postmodernism. In traditional societies, narratives play a crucial role in defining competency criteria and explaining how requirements apply to those narratives. The main difference between scientific knowledge and narrative lies in their language games. Scientific knowledge operates within the denotative language game, while ignoring other language games. On the other hand, narrative knowledge validates itself without the need for arguments, evidence, falsification, or verification. Scientists often question the validity of narrative statements due to this distinction.

Both scientific knowledge and narrative are essential, represented by a series of statements made by players within their respective frameworks and accepted rules. Each type of knowledge has its specific rules. What may be considered reasonable in one type of knowledge may differ from what is suitable in another. It is not possible to evaluate the existence and validity of non-scientific knowledge or narratives based solely on scientific knowledge, and vice versa, as they operate under different criteria and language games. This language difference is cultural, not indicative of one being superior to the other.

Science does not adhere to a single point of view. It uses denotative language and relies on internal fact verification. In contrast, narrative knowledge employs metaphorical language. The two forms of knowledge are distinct and serve different purposes, contributing to a richer understanding of the world.

The Aesthetics of Art

Jean-François Lyotard emphatically rejects Hegel’s view of the history of art, asserting the opposite perspective aligned with postmodernism conditions. According to Lyotard, art is not a historical artifact but rather, historical goods emerge from art. He fundamentally denies the existence of meaning in every work of art, emphasizing the process over any fixed form. In this regard, he dismisses the notion that art is meant to convey specific meanings.

Lyotard believes that art possesses an energetic capacity, unrelated to issues of meaning and identity, akin to philosophy. He contrasts how art connoisseurs and critics perceive art as meaningful representation, asserting that it is, in fact, a force that manifests itself. His understanding of art, particularly concerning beauty, is distinctive.

Art, for Lyotard, serves as a means to liberate from the dominance of discourse rooted solely in techno-science principles, thus preventing knowledge from stagnating. He views postmodernism not merely as a style or mode of thinking, but as a system of openness that allows art to embrace diverse, non-deterministic expressions. Subjects thinking without controlling the diversity inherent in organic life have their own rules. Aesthetics in art, according to Lyotard, transcends the constraints of language systems and contains latent capacities. Moreover, art possesses an explosive power capable of creating events. For him, art should not conform to circumstances, advocating for its inherent autonomy.

The Postmodern

Various questions arise: what are the conditions of postmodernism, according to Jean-François Lyotard? How do they intertwine in the bewildering process of challenging narrative and imagery norms? Postmodernism undeniably coexists with modernity. Everything that people have accepted, even just yesterday, must be subject to suspicion. A postmodern artist or writer assumes the role of a philosopher: the texts they create, rather than adhering to predefined rules or applying general categories, explore and seek the rules within the works themselves. Categories and rules become something that the artwork itself seeks. As an artist or writer, they work without pre-established rules, formulating rules about something that originated in the past and will evolve in the future.

It is evident to the public that the loss of faith in grand narratives and the emergence of numerous small accounts, as emphasized in Lyotard’s thought, characterizes postmodernism. Additionally, according to Lyotard, postmodernism seeks to present multiple realities and offer various alternatives. The traditional cultural heritage, dichotomized in black and white, has also led to rigidity, trapping people in the abyss of universalism and essentialism. In essence, Lyotard rejects the idea of universal objective truth, as he believes that truth claims are shaped by discourse.


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