Jean-François Lyotard and the Conditions of Postmodernism

The Postmodern Society

Before contributing his thoughts on postmodernism conditions, Jean-François Lyotard was a political activist with Marxist views in the 1950s and 1960s. He became a non-Marxist philosopher of postmodernism. For him, postmodernism became a fundamental break from the totalitarian thought represented by Marxism. Before the publication of the book entitled The Difference, he had already shown the direction of the philosophical change. It is his most important work in philosophy. In 1954, his first book was entitled La Phenomenologia, an introductory textbook explaining Husserl’s phenomenology. Although he is a Marxist follower, he is always critical. He rejects dogmatic interpretations of Marx’s thoughts, such as Trotskyism and Stalinism.

Lyotard officially declared his departure from Marxism. He was disappointed with the Marxist movement’s failure to build a just socialist society as heralded in 1966. On the other hand, Marxism seeks to create a homogeneous culture. The culture can only be realized using violence and human rights violations. He strongly disagrees with uniformity or efforts to make uniforms, mainly if these efforts are achieved using violence. For him, one of the characteristics of postmodern society is individualism and the freedom to be different from others.

The Critique of Modern Philosophy

The term postmodern itself was first introduced in his famous book entitled The Postmodern Condition. It was published in 1979 and translated into English. The English edition was published in 1984. Since then, he has been 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.

Besides being asked to explain the impact that the development of information technology had on science at the end of the 20th century, in the book, he said that there had been extraordinary developments and changes in knowledge, science, and education in the information society. The 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 transformation has a significant impact on knowledge. The miniaturization and commercialization of machines have changed how knowledge is acquired, classified, created, and exploited. He also believes that the nature of knowledge cannot remain unchanged in the context of 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 freedom, progress, and emancipation of the proletariat have experienced, as the grand narratives, the same fate as those of faith, nationality, and religion. 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 available transformations. Inserting it into the new channel is operational only when a certain amount of information translates into specialized knowledge. Society can predict how 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 solve 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 is 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 a 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 understanding of paying in money and knowledge of investing. In other words, between units of knowledge exchanged in terms of 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. It is because scientific knowledge always competes with other knowledge. According to Jean-François Lyotard, he calls it the narrative conditions of postmodernism. In traditional societies, narratives are important, define competency criteria, and explain how the requirements apply to narratives. The main difference between scientific knowledge and narrative is that scientific knowledge presupposes only one language game: denotative language. Meanwhile, the players should ignore other language games. Narrative knowledge validates itself without referring to arguments and evidence or without resorting to falsification and verification.

Therefore, scientists question the validity of narrative statements. It concludes that narrative knowledge is not subject to argument and evidence. Both scientific knowledge and narrative are essential. A series of statements made by players within the framework of generally accepted rules stands for both. The rules are specific to each type of knowledge. Opinions considered reasonable in a particular kind of knowledge will differ from statements deemed suitable for other types of knowledge.

It is impossible to assess the existence and validity of non-scientific knowledge or narratives based on scientific knowledge or vice versa. Therefore, the criteria or language games used are not the same. The language difference in question is cultural, not a distinction between one being better than the other. It is because science does not accept a point of view. If only science uses denotative language through internal fact verification, narrative knowledge uses metaphorical language.

The Aesthetics of Art

Jean-François Lyotard emphatically rejects Hegel’s view of the history of art as opposed to postmodernism conditions. For him, art is not historical goods but the other way around. Radically, he denies the existence of meaning in every work of art when the process occurs, in addition to rejecting the idea that rides form. According to him, art has an energetic capacity as a philosophy has nothing to do with issues of meaning and identity. In the realm of philosophical thought, he thinks about how art connoisseurs and critics view art as a meaningful representation. However, it is a force that manifests itself. His understanding of art is unique, especially about beauty.

Art is part of the struggle to liberate from the domination of discourse solely based on techno-science principles. With the inclination, knowledge stagnates. In Lyotard’s view, postmodernism is not a kind of style or way of thinking. However, it refers to a system of openness that allows art to open up the diversity that is not deterministic. Subjects who think without controlling the diversity found in organic life have their own rules. Aesthetics, in essence, in art, is non-binding in the language system and contains capacities that are not manifest. Art also has an explosive power that can create events. Art should not conform to circumstances, at least for him.

The Postmodern

Various questions arise: what is postmodernism conditions, according to Jean-François Lyotard? What place do they occupy in the dizzying work of throwing questions at the rules of narrative and imagery? Postmodernism is undoubtedly a part of modern. Everything that people received, even yesterday, they must also suspect. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the texts they write, the predefined rules by applying general categories to the texts, or works that do not in principle govern the works they produce. Categories and rules are a thing the artwork itself is looking for. An artist and writer, thus, works without rules in formulating rules about something that people started in the past and will finish in the future.

Therefore, it is clear to the public that the loss of faith in the grand narrative and the birth of many small accounts, particularly in Lyotard’s thought, marked postmodernism. Besides that, according to Lyotard, postmodernism also tries to present multiple realities and provides many alternatives. A modern cultural heritage dichotomized in black and white has also given birth to rigidity, making people trapped in the abyss of universalism essentialism. In essence, he rejects universal objective truth because, according to him, discourse forms truth claims.


About the author

Salman Al Farisi is the owner of Calxylian and is an elitist who has enjoyed and studied various mediums. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in 2020 from the Haluoleo University, Indonesia, where he studied English Literature, Film Criticism, Cultural Studies, Literary Theory, and Literary Criticism. He lives in Kendari in his mom's basement, now unemployed and ghostwriter, life with his cats, and is looking for the future.


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