by Dr. William Schultz
In "A Postmodern
Fable" Lyotard narrates the story of the universe from its creation to nine billion
years later when the sun in our solar system is com- pletely burnt out and the intelligent
life on earth--no longer human--must leave in spaceships (Moralites Chapter 6; Fables
83-103). Midway in the 1story exists the human race during its postmodern way of thinking.
This situation suggests the hubris of our postmodern worldview and the consequent
potential for disaster:
Humans are very mistaken in their presuming to be the motors of [technological]
development and in confusing development with the progress of con- sciousness and
civilization. They are its products, vehicles, and witnesses. Even the criticisms they may
make of development, its inequality, its inconsistency, its fatality, its inhumanity, even
these criticisms are expressions of development and contribute to it. Revolutions, wars,
crises, deliberations, inventions, and dis- coveries are not the `work of the human being'
but effects and conditions of complexifying [the cos- mic process of the expansion and
differentiation of the universe since its origin]. These are always ambivalent for Humans,
they bring them the best and the worst (100; my emphasis).
This fable, published fourteen years after The Post- modern Condition, reads like a
space-age equivalent of the Delphic Oracle, with the message warning us of the ambivalence
of postmodernism and urging us to avoid its contemporary hubris [in the guise of tech-
nology and unending progress] if we are to avoid the worst. In this passage there is the
opposition of social progress and culture that is essential to the idea of the postmodern.
In Lyotard's philosophy, the postmodern is ambivalent in three main ways. First, it is
ambivalent insofar as its products bring us both good and evil, the technology of nuclear
power is not possible without that of nuclear bombs.
Secondly, it is ambivalent insofar as Lyotard understands the word `postmodern' to
apply to the whole range of contemporary culture, from everyday social life to science and
art. Quite often Lyotard writes negatively about the postmodernity of popular culture but
positively about the postmodernity of high culture (art, science, philosophy, etc.) This
important ambivalent evaluation concerning the levels of the postmodern has been noticed
by Jane Moore. Making a related point, Albrecht Wellmer would attribute Lyotard's mixed
evaluation of post- modernism not so much to the difference of levels within contemporary
culture as to the fact that change is occurring at all levels and so the levels have not
yet achieved the full benefits of the changes (45).
Thirdly, the term seems ambivalent in the sense of a confusion. Lyotard intends to use
it the prefix "post" in a way different from the way it is usually used. (See
Charles Jencks' strong criticism of the use of the prefix by Lyotard.) "I have said
and will say again," he insists, "that `postmodern' signifies not the end of
modernism"; it is a type of new thinking in relation to modernism ("Les
lumieres...", Reponse 1; "An Interview" 277). Lyotard finally resorts to an
unorthodox explanation in the form of the fable, which is most easily understood after a
discussion of his entire theory originating almost twenty years earlier in The Post-
That Lyotard achieved his fame for his Post- modernism is surprising and ironic. It is
so because he is most acclaimed for The Postmodern Condition even though he does not think
it is his main book, nor does he even think it is a book of philosophy (Ibid.). "It
is rather a book which is very strongly marked by sociology, by a certain historicism, and
by epistemology." It was written during the course of the ten years' writing of Le
Differend ("dis- pute"), from 1973 to 1983, and so he sees it as merely a moment
on the way to it (PE 2-10; in English Correspondence 31; and see "Histoire..."
par. 1). In this phase Lyotard relies much on the use of narratives in knowledge there but
not so much in works after it, as Geoffrey Bennington notices (Writing 3). Lyotard admits
that he exaggerated the importance of narrative and that the book is less important than
Le Differend. In Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (1988; this first appeared in English)
he grounds Le Differend in the earlier works Economie Libidinale (1974) and Discours,
figure (1971), thus pointing out the integral role of his theory of postmodernism in his
whole career and the continuity of it, which has often been questioned by scholars.
Concerning the recognition of narrative as central to the processes of the human mind,
Jameson praises Lyotard as "one of the few professional philosophers of stature
anywhere formally to have" done so (Foreword, PC xi).
If postmodernism is a stage on the way to some other period in Lyotard's philosophy, it
is nonethe- less beneficial to Lyotard's lifework. He believes it helps him think about
his already developed philosophical ideas in a broad historical context, especially in
relation to the Enlightenment, and in the social context of his life, resulting in a
greater understanding of their role (MK 28; CPM 9; PC xxv).
The task assigned to Lyotard by the President of the Conseil des Universities of the
government of Quebec was to write a report on the condition of knowledge in the most
highly developed societies (MK 27-8; CPM 9; PC xxv). The statement of the task implies a
dual focus: to define knowledge and to define its role within society. This double focus
influences the entire report. Lyotard, however, tries to find a single unifying principle
of post- modern society and culture: "Where, after the metanarratives [of modernity],
can legitimacy reside?...is a legitimation of the social bond, a just society, feasible in
terms...analogous to that of scientific activity? What would such a paradox be?" (MK
26-7; CPM 8-9; PC xxiv-xxv). This is the single question to which his entire theory or
post- modernism gives an answer. Its terms have become famous and, because they are so
original, need to be defined now at length.
The term "legitimacy," coming from Jurgen Habermas, is related to
"legislation" and shows a connection between science on the one hand, and ethics
and politics on the other (MK 41; CPM 20; PC 8). These, Lyotard believes, are the two
extremes of postmodernism: science and the arts and humanities in relation to the society
where they take place. The meaning of a grand narrative or metanarrative is unique to
Lyotard's theory. He explicity defines it to mean a narrative "with a legitimating
function"-- legitimating an entire life and all the actions in it, an entire culture
(PE 2-10; Correspondence 31). They themselves require no further justification; the
medieval dictum applies, "you must believe [in God] in order to understand [Him or
anything else]." Lyotard tries to find what the postmodern mind believes
in--something that was never the foundation of human life before.
Lyotard's most general and most quoted definition of postmodernism is the
"incredulity to metanarra- tives" (MK 26; CPM 7; PC xxiv), the crisis of
modernity, the type of thinking modelled on metanar- ratives or grand narratives
(Moralites end of Chap- ter 6; Fables 101), and the rewriting of modernity (L'Inhumain
2-1; Inhuman 24). Postmodern thinking is part of the modern, its self-correction, and in
this respect Lyotard's views reveal their origins in Der- rida's deconstruction (See
Rodolphe Gasche's "Deconstruction as Criticism").
Modernism begins as Christianity, develops and diversifies into various grand
narratives up to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, partially into the
nineteenth, and still occurs today. Lyotard divides them into two categories, the grand
specula- tive narrative and the grand narrative of emancipa- tion. The speculative
narrative refers to the belief that knowledge forms an ideal unity such that some- one
might some day be able to understand all of the universe in one theory. Quite often
Lyotard refers to German idealistic philosophy. He also refers to Romanticism, which
believed in the supreme unending development of the individual psyche (L'Inhumain 5- 36;
The narrative of emancipation gives hope to people that one day they will be free or
that their situa- tion will be better. It structures and justifies social institutions,
political practices, laws, ethics, and ways of thinking in everyday life and dealings with
other people, just as the myths of the classical period before them did (PE 2-03; Cor-
respondence 29). After Christianity, types of this social narrative are Enlightenment
political rationalism, democracy, Romanticism, capitalism and the opposite, Marxism. These
types do not neces- sarily peacefully cooexist; for example, Romanticism as the
interpretation of the will in terms of infinite enrichment is partially a reaction to
capitalism as the interpretation of the will as infinite acquisition and domination
("Appendice svelte a la question postmoderne" 77-78; Political 25). Sometimes
they do, however, as when a factory owner justifies his oppression of workers and his
obsession with work by reference to a Christian duty.
Lyotard must have decided to divide modernist thinking into these two categories so
that they might parallel the two extremes of postmodern cul- ture: the realm of actual
society where the unity of people and their freedom is an issue and the realm of
scientific ideas and high culture where the unity and criteria of knowledge are at stake.
This double focus was implicit in the original task set for Lyotard--the discussion of
knowledge in advanced societies.
Modernism begins to decline or lose its credibility when there is increased
communication between different cultures of the world during the nineteenth century
("Histoire..." par. 17; Reader 319). Lyotard seems to be thinking that, even
though the weaker and less advanced cultures were always essentially assimilated, the
numerous, and worldwide struggles with the European grand narratives made them suspect and
pointed to their deficiencies which less advanced cultures did not have to suffer.
It also begins to decline as industrialization develops. Industrialization brings with
it new ways of doing everything. There is a rise of technique with its emphasis on means
and not ends (MK 99; CPM 63; PC 37). Also, Lyotard mentions that an "internal
erosion" of grand narratives occurred simultaneously with the rise of the new
thinking based on means, not based on one final end in Englightenment eschatology (MK 102;
CPM 65; PC 39).
A self-destruction of the narrative of emancipa- tion occurs. Through the course of
time workers and other minority groups come to realize that the hope for which they have
lived is not changing their status as minority groups despite some achievement along the
way of their original demands. The ideal is indeed infinite. No promised land relieves
reality of its burdens, as if the ideal could become real. The fall of communism and the
repeated dis- illusionment of the American dream are opposite yet complimentary political
examples verifying Lyotard's general claim. He believes the decline is completed in the
1950s, not in the sense of an historical period called modernism and its replacement by a
postmodernism, but in the sense that the full fea- tures of a postmodernist thinking
appear at least as early as the 1950s (MK 29; CPM 11; PC 3).
The change to postmodernism is a change in the way people think about the world using
time. Lyotard distinguishes three types of worldviews using time: the classical (before
Christianity), the modern, and the postmodern. In classical thinking, life has meaning
through the past, in a founder of a com- munity, perhaps an original hero, or a present
and acting hero or god or human. The sense of the character of the community and the
individual is not a problem because the myths or stories are retold and the feeling of
identity is renewed, and so felt to be immediate and direct in the present. Concern- ing
the future, the purpose of life and the sense of the sacred are not deferred to an ideal
or infinite future; they are indwelling in the everyday life. Life is cyclically ordered
like the seasons of nature (myths are based on a circulus vitiosus in
"Histoire..." par. 21; Reader 321). The reward for living does not come after it
is over. There could be no "judgment day," no single apocalypse as a separate
day at the end of one's life or the end of the human race; there would be many rewards and
judgments, and they would be different depending upon recent events or the situations and
In modern thinking, what is essential and distinc- tive is the grand narratives, since
they project the meaning and value of life "forward while founding it in a lost
origin," which helps to create a linear, forward moving history as opposed to a
cyclical renewable cosmos of the classical civilizations (97). Like classical thinking,
modern thinking believes the past has value, but as a different period leading to the
present. In the present, the modern mind feels a "lack," which would be filled
only at the end of a life when the subject could be redeemed by God. Modern people live
for a purpose to be fulfilled later. Even though there is greater self-determination in
relation to the classical idea of tragic fate and destiny, "the ideal situated at the
end of the narrative of emancipation is sup- posedly conceivable, even if it comprises,
under the name of freedom, a sort of void or `blank', a lack of definition, to be
safeguarded" or one that is held to be sacred and unquestioned (L'Inhumain 5-37;
The modern way of thinking declines when people no longer believe they must merely
project their lives toward a future ideal that always seems just as far away. Instead,
they must "program" exactly what this future is going to be (L'Inhumain 5-38;
Inhuman 68); so they begin to live more and more in the future, thinking about it,
planning it, and hardly ever in the present, as the American sociologist Philip Slater
points out in The Pursuit of Loneliness. In the frenzy for progress the past tends to be
cut off from current vital interests, and the present is fragmented into separate projects
designed to make the future exist today--a contradiction in terms.
The life style of living more in the future than in the present, so to speak, is
postmodern. A very different kind of culture is the traditional Chinese, in which
ancestors were worshipped and thought of a lot and old age was a positive trait to be
respected. It still remains to be seen what the postmodern believes in, and bases the
meaning of life on, if anything. Quite often, the phrase "the meaning of life"
immediately provokes laughter or dismissal as devoid of specific content. This temporal
thinking can be a kind of pervasive melan- choly in postmodern society, a feeling of no
direc- tion in life, a nostalgia for grand narratives to give meaning to individuals and
pattern a life ready-made, as it were.
The end of modernism causes three kinds of social disorder or cultural vacumn (modeled
on the term "power vacumn" to denote the sudden loss of politi- cal power due to
assasination or revolution): loss of community bonds, loss of personal identity, and loss
of the sense of the reality of objects. The loss of community bonds has been described
extensively in various works on modern life (Eric Fromm, Rollo May, Hannah Arendt, Jacques
Ellul, et al.). For example the nineteenth-century worker still knows neighbors, does not
travel far to work, and feels united to fellow workers in the common cause for better
conditions. In contrast, these bonds are broken when the twentieth-century worker often
does not know the neighbors, travels far to work, which reduces the time spent with the
family, and no longer has the desire to struggle for better working conditions.
A related type of cultural vacumn is the loss of personal identity. Routine work of all
kinds destroys initiative, redirects desire away from the product of work and toward
money, which increasingly comes to seem arbitrary because the link between labor and
reward--the objects of consumption-- becomes indirect and all but forgotten. The
accompanying types of leisure such as television in the home that tends to replace
conversation complete the process of depersonalization.
The decline of modernism leads to a third kind of cultural vacumn: the loss of real
objects and of reality, and these ideas are unique to Lyotard, and somewhat to Jean
Baudrillard, who is influenced by Lyotard. (See Thomas Docherty's "Postmodernist
Theory: Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Others"). The sense in everyday life that there is
no meaning or that everything is artificial comes ultimately from the nature of the West
to abandon its ideals for new ones during its evolution (Moralites 2-11 and 15-2; Fables
25). In doing so values are reconceived along with reality, and the Westerners get "a
melancholic satisfaction" in the contemplation of the ruined ideals, melancholy being
a common feeling in the postmodern attitude. The historical sense of post- moderners is to
regard itself as immortal or at the end of civilization because all the others have been
past and thus acquire the potential value of material for museums. The cultural identity
is that of the borrower or user of previous culture, the commentator on culture, and the
anti-cultural stance of popular culture with only personal criteria of value.
Not just concerning the postmodern sense of history, but also in everyday life there is
"the loss of objects and the ascendency of the imaginary over reality"
(Moralites 15-5; Fables 236). There is so much information and it changes so quickly that
an atmosphere of meaninglessness or unreality accompanies the present event. Or, a
futility in assimilating reality if felt. Objects becomes less real because they are so
temporary Moralites Chapter 2; (Fables 22). Consumers goods are used up so quickly; people
move to new living accommodations much more often than in the past, and doing so cuts them
off from the past; they are always starving to find something new to consume, whether it
be goods, friends, or experiences. This character of the most advanced societies has been
noticed by Slater in his Temporary Society and Alvin Tofler in Future Shock. The
destruction of objects and of reality is also literally true, seemingly being a matter of
the due course of civilization and having clear examples in the destruction of nature by
humanity. Lyotard cites the examples of the loss of many species, the virtual end of all
wild life, the end to all civilizations except the most modern, the complete change of the
physical world into an artificial environment of the city, including artificial food, and
so on (Moralites 15-5; Fables 237).
Although some lasting, valuable changes in the arts result from the best works in
postmodernism, there are other attempts at artistic novelty that are so-called postmodern
but that are insufficiently aware of the artistic tradition; they are popular and of low
In "The Transformation of Everyday Life" Lyotard discusses these changes in
work and in everyday life as the conditions for the end of the modern outlook on life and
the rise of the postmodern in the form of a general deculturation and depoliticization
(See "The State and Politics..."; Political 268 ff.). The worker's indifference
toward the actual tasks per- formed extends to an indifference in more general political
concerns. The worker begins to feel anonymous since everyone does the job in the same way
and every detail of the job is designed by others. Then the worker has less stake in the
general course of the nation.
...this distaste for worn-out organizations is not enough to characterize the attitude
of the proletariat toward politics. This distaste seems to extend to the political sphere
itself. The working class, if it is still capable of fighting, and hard, at the company
level, is not producing new stable organizations in which not only its protest program but
its communist project might crystallize. The idea of a global and radical transformation
of society seems absent from the present attitude of the workers, along with the idea that
collective action can bring about this transformation. The spread of this depoliticiza-
tion greatly exceeds implicit criticism of the parties and the unions. We must search for
the true reasons for this, decide to open our eyes, to identify the immense transformation
in the everyday life of the working class...in which this depoliticization inscribes
itself...(See "The State and Politics..."; Political 269).
The political interests of the modern mind are replaced by the personal, narcissistic
interests of the postmodern, narcissism being a main defining trait of society today,
according to Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism. The unreachable ideals of
modernism become modified and thus reach- able in a single person's will and in a certain
respect (money or power) ("Appendice svelte..." page 1; Political 25). To this
extent capitalism helps to break up the modern social bond into self-interest (PE 6-14;
Correspondence 85). Capitalism on Lyotard's view seeks "the `instantiation' of
infinity in the will"--an infinite power, infinite amount of money, novelty,
production and consump- tion. For this reason, capitalism becomes totalitarian not in a
political but in a social sense; it dominates all aspects of social life (PE 6-14;
The ideal of universal freedom and equality deteriorates into the desire for the
infinity of the individual will, eventually leading to the monomania of captains of
industry, the new culture heros and role models, such as Howard Hughes, John Rockefeller,
and Dale Carnegie.
The postmodern workers try harder than ever to become free though not by aspiring
toward the single ultimate shared goal of emancipation but by putting their energies into
an indefinite number of limited achievable acts of becoming free, just like the type of
technical work engaged in, into work reforms of all kinds, which will bring them
individual benefits of a better standard of living depending of each one's efforts. The
overall result is a loss in the interest of a community of the "we" and the
forma- tion of smaller, more local communities to fulfill the projects of the cooperation
of workers and management: committees in the form of task forces and working groups and
interest groups replace the single historical and international modern com- munity.
Similarly, what would be the leisure of the educated classes with a continuous purpose
through life becomes a series of hobbies, entertainment, and pastimes, where novelty, not
continued personal involvement and growth, is most important.
The modern ideal of emancipation becomes the post- modern technological ideal of
performativity, get- ting the best possible result: "the rule of per- formance that
requires the endless optimalization of the cost/benefit (input/output) ratio"
("Appendice svelte..." page 1; Political 25). For this idea Lyotard acknowledges
his debt to Niklas Luhmann, author of Legitimation durch Verfahren (Neuweid: Luchterhand,
1969) (MK 116; CPM 76; PC 46). The com- munity deteriorates into "`masses' in search
of an identity" because there is no identity gained through a shared project, nor
through a valued past, nor through self-actualization in work (PE 4- 41;Correspondence
67). Mass society and popular cul- ture are aspects of postmodern thinking.
The feeling of being right in the modernist way of thinking turns into the postmodern
ideal of success, which "is self-proclaiming, like a ratification of something
heedless of any law" (PE 2-06; Cor- respondence 30). The disappointment about never
actually becoming emancipated and even feeling that it is always just as far away as it
ever was is avoided in postmodern society. In its place arises anxiety about the infinite
number of separate projects whose completion through techniques will bring the
emancipation going by the name of success--a kind of mastery of the self over nature or
life's circumstances. Instead of one project without end, there is no end to the number of
projects bringing pleasure or profit. Legitimation through a grand narrative becomes
legitimation through particular situations or "local discourses" (in constrast
to the universal discourse of a grand narrative) ("Histoire..." par. 28; Reader
This depoliticization of the modern mind is a process Lyotard himself underwent in his
own life, though his was a more active, self-conscious deci- sion (and led to his
so-called turn to aesthetics). After being very active in the 1960s with a left- wing
group associated with the journal Socialism or Barbarism, Lyotard felt the uselessness of
political activism along a party line. Even for some intellectuals, the grand narratives
lose "their intelligibility and their substance" (See "The State and
Politics..."; Political 269), because the radical politics of modernism cannot occur
in postmodern culture. Resistance in the form of strikes, com- plaints, or any kind of
counter-productivity is permitted in society as a safety valve to stop a more general kind
of refusal, such as the refusal to be a worker anymore (Political 274-75). Several
sociologists document this process of cooption (Slater and Ellul).
Yet, unlike many decultured members of mass society, he did not stop having political
views. He still believes the main problem of society is capitalism ("Appendice
svelts..." page 1; Political 25). It pretends to be founded on an ideology of the
nature of people and the ethical values of democracy whereas in fact the main laws of
society are determined so as to serve the power and financial centers thus promoting their
advantage albeit less unchecked than in previous types of society (See "Appendice
svelte..."; Political 29).
Technology "completes" the project of modernity although in a way
unanticipated; in other words, in a way leading to a loss of faith in its ideals. The
ideal of modernity becomes actual in the material substructure of a new technological or
But the victory of capitalist technoscience over the other candidates for the universal
finality of human history is another means of destroying the project of modernity while
giving the impression of completing it. The subject's mastery over the objects generated
by contemporary science and technology does not bring greater freedom, more public
education or greater wealth more evenly distributed. It brings an increased reliance on
facts (PE 2-05; Correspondence 30).
The paradise promised by modernism is not achieved and so it becomes redefined by
technology with the help of science.
Descartes, according to Lyotard, is a clear example of modern thinking, an observation
con- sistent with many textbooks and histories which periodizing science and culture into
a medieval, religious era controverted and replaced by one deprived of its ideals though
formed according to better rational "Enlightened" views. Descartes used the
first person, separated his method in a book different from his other discoveries, and
sub- ordinates everything, including nature, to the universal task characteristic of
modernism. Des- cartes' Discourse on Method, according to Lyotard, "attempts to
master every datum, including itself...This modern mode of organizing time is deployed by
the Aufklarung [the Enlightenment] of the eighteenth century" (PE 3-04;
The postindustrial phenomenon of technology is the common factor in the decline of both
the eman- cipatory and the speculative narratives. Lyotard does not believe the ideal of
mastery common in modernist science continues in the postmodern: "It gradually falls
out of use in the representations of science made by scientists themselves. Man is per-
haps only a very sophisticated node in the general interaction of emanations constituting
the universe" (PE 2-11; Correspondence 32). In the discourse of science a new way of
representing itself and a new type of ideal appears in the crisis of modernism. To the
extent that science cooperates with business and industry in the much discussed new
phenomenon of "science and technology," the former modernist goal of science to
find a speculative unity of all knowledge on a level above other knowledge of the world
Scientific success or performativity replaces the speculative metanarrative, which came
to its full expression in the nineteenth century. There came to the fore a
self-contradiction in this way of think- ing. If knowledge can only be legitimated by a
second level of discourse and ultimately in an absolute idea, "this is as much as to
say that, in its immediacy, denotative discourse bearing on a certain referent...does not
really know what it thinks it knows" (MK 100; CPM 64; PC 38).
The new goal can be achieved in the form of an indefinite number of new applications of
ideas or of new ideas which can be applied. In this way the project of science changes
into a search for what can have immediate or direct results in application to society,
that is, science serves technology rather than the other way around as it does in
modernism. Through capitalism, the infinite desire for knowledge is subordinated to the
infinite desire for acquisition; what can be permitted when science is utilitarian, or
when the cost of scientific ideas is measured against the benefits to society
("Appendice svelte..." page 1; Political 25).
The crisis of modernism which is the rise of post- modernism partially occurs because
of the level of the material technological development. As an important conclusion in The
Postmodern Condition, computers and other technology change the definition of knowledge
(4-7). Due to the way computers store and process information into bits which can be
reorganized, even scientific knowledge is redefined as "quantities of
information." Anything that cannot be computerized, tends to be classified as not
knowledge. At the same time whatever is knowledge must have a more direct application,
since the com- puter makes knowledge more available than ever before. Knowledge is
disseminated throughout society more quickly, which is good, and yet this fact tends to
reduce knowledge to what could have a more immediate application. Then there is a tendency
for science to try to produce less pure science and more knowledge beneficial for society.
This fact is beyond dispute when the funding of university research projects by business,
industry, and the military is considered. As a subsystem within society science or even
the whole of education must adapt to new the new social form. The former partial control
of science through the patronage of royalty gives way to a more intense control by a
greater number of agencies within society. This process seemed to lead to a wonderful
renaissance of "science and technology," though Lyotard regards it as an
illusory result of the fragmentation of science into many fields of application cut off
from any sense of their grounding in a total view of the world. By materializing ideas and
redirecting aims, capitalism turns culture--here scientific ideas-- into a commodity for
exchange (L'Inhumain Chapter 2, last par.; Inhuman 34). Capitalism cooperates with
technology in the limitation of the aims of modernist science to produce a new postmodern
science. For these reasons, Lyotard redefines knowledge as "a form of an
informational commodity indispensable to productive power" (MK 34; CPM 15; PC 5).
Instead of being legitimated by a grand nar- rative, science aims toward "the
finality of the best possible performance, which is the technologi- cal criterion"
("Reponse..." par. 16; PC 77). Science becomes redirected somewhat by the new
idiom of the world "and the world speaks of speed, satis- faction, narcissism,
competitivity, success and ful- filment" (PE 10-22; Correspondence 121). It shares
this new goal with the rest of postmodern society.
A sense of science is often lost in many post- modern scientific practices: the sense
of not just quantities of information that can be applied but the sense of a unique kind
of discourse seeking its own legitimacy or trying to understand what it is and make itself
better, using its own criteria (MK 62; CPM 35; PC 18).
There are political implications of the new definition of knowledge. Information will
have an increasing economic, social, and strategic role in international relations. Within
the most modern nations, new laws and techniques for the dissemina- tion of information
will need to be developed, some of them to overcome the outmoded state control of
universities and research. Businesses and industry will assume more of the control.
Multinational com- panies have become so large and so international that they have
acquired a force in international policies. The new types of information technology such
as satellites, electronic media, and the Inter- net make the changes in techniques
difficult to con- trol with legislation, which takes time. Political strategies will be
more responsive to the industrial, already to many multinational companies, and the
industrial will depend more on science. In international relations, the nations with more
or better information will gain an even greater advantage over the underinformed ones (See
MK 35-37; CPM 15-17; PC 5-6). All in all, governments will relinquish some of their
control to information technology and other organizations, both profit and international
In summary, "postmodern" describes both a new type of society and a new type
of knowing. Usually, he defines knowledge in terms of science, though in "Presenting
the Unpresentable: The Sublime" (ArtForum, April 1982) art is described as a vehicle
of knowledge able to change society. Apropos of society, the single "we" of
modernism dissolves into many groups defined by tasks and cut off from a general political
will which founded democracy in the Enlightenment. Apropos of knowledge, the modernist
unity of knowledge becomes separate bits of reorganizable information cut off from general
questions of the nature of discourse. "Postmodern" describes a new society and
type of knowledge.
The key to the modern mind lies in the sacred or unquestioned character of the grand
narratives; and when it does question them, they provide no hope and lose their meaning,
and so the postmodern mind has some difficulty in giving an overall meaning to life. The
new sacred value to replace the modern values is performativity, the technological
criterion of efficiency. Jacques Ellul and many other theorists agree. Whatever is
efficient is decided in particular cases, though few people or almost no one questions the
dominance of this value.
If The Postmodern Condition only came to these conclusions about life today, it would
indeed be very pessimistic. This picture of the world, with the real possibility of the
destruction of the earth, is the worst. The best of the postmodern is its improvements in
cultural activities, science being the most described in that book since it is the current
paradigm of knowledge and seems to have the most social effect--it seems to be the most
per- formative of cultural activities.
Just as many intellectuals have written about the struggles of culture against society,
so too does Lyotard. The negative effects of the main value in society (performativity or
efficiency) may be balanced by the new positive powers of culture. The postmodern mind
might improve human life through the influence of culture on society, perhaps with some
resistance from society.
Though postmodern science is partially determined by the dominant value of society, it
is working toward values not realized in the modern mind. Scientific research is all too
often determined by the financial role of governments and businesses today. While the
assistance has some value, it can be negative in the sense that the research will tend to
be always applied to new technological develop- ments rather than to more pure research
that could make vast changes in many conceptions of the world.
Within this mostly negative social influence, science preserves values of its own,
inherited from the past, yet developed in the postmodern mind. More than ever before,
scientific research includes some discussion of the definition of science and its
assumptions. Postmodern science is more advanced than previous science insofar as it is
more aware of its own processes. Another way to describe Lyotard's idea is to say that
science is a more rational, self-conscious process than ever before. This does not
necessarily mean that science will progress faster (this would be to demand of science the
expectation of performativity); it does, however, mean that science knows more about the
world and its account of it.
Lyotard describes the postmodern questioning of the definition of science in these
Postmodern science...is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while expressing
how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it
suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but
has as its basis difference understood as paralogy (MK 141; CPM 97; PC 60).
Here is a statement of the final part of Lyotard's definition of the postmodern. The
first part is the legitimation of society by the value of per- formativity. The second
part is the legitimation of science by "paralogy." "Paralogy" means a
state of inconsistency proven by a superior theory. Only this condition warrants the
conclusion that a theory is fully scientific. In one passage he describes it as the
"future anterior" ("Reponse..." par. 29; PC 81). In nontechnical terms
this idea means that science or any cultural field develops to the point of a crisis in
its method. Then, a revolution is needed to renew the science. Only at the point of a
crisis are the principles of the previous discoveries explicit and known. (For the idea
that Lyotard's thought defines the future anterior of Derrida's, see William Schultz's
Genetic Codes of Culture?.)
The idea of paralogy is the most difficult idea in The Postmodern Condition since it
its the most abstract; at the same time it is his most important idea concerning culture;
it is the basis of his theory of postmodern culture, including all the arts, sciences, and
This idea goes counter to the common sense view of science in which it tends toward a
consensus. The history of science, nevertheless, confirms Lyotard's view that there is no
final scientific theory, one which everyone agrees with and which would be the final
complete representation of reality.
Another aspect of postmodern science is that a new theory includes an explanation of
matters not understood well enough in the earlier one. Then, the main principle of the
"future anterior" means that a scientific theory may come later in time than
another one, yet it can and does come logically prior to its predecessor in the special
sense that it can explain what the previous could not. New principles become explicit on
which the previous theory unknowingly depended. In the style of the postmodern, Lyotard
wrote that the basis of The Postmodern Condition is in a later work, in Le Differend
("Les lumieres...", Reponse 1; "An Inter- view" 277-78). The
principles in the later work state explicitly what was only implicit in the ear- lier.
Even though in The Postmodern Condition Lyotard presents his definition of postmodern
culture in terms of science, in other works he writes about the idea of paralogy, of
working toward a change in the nature of art or literature. He develops the idea of the
postmodern most in terms of science, since the point of crisis that any theory would
develop toward becomes explicit in faulty assumptions. In art, the point would be a
problem in the style, an incongruous or unaesthetic feature.
In conclusion, Lyotard has an ambivalent defini- tion of the postmodern. The condition
of our lives depends upon two values working against each other to form a common
worldview: the main value of society, performativity, is in opposition to the main value
of cultural fields, paralogy or redefini- tion through revolution. Though Lyotard sought a
single supreme value, as could in a sense be found in modern thinking, he could not find
any in the postmodern way.
Which value will become exclusive, if either does? What would the consequences be if
this were to hap- pen? Would there be another Dark Age of civilization (400 a.d. to the
Renaissance)? Would the world be destroyed by the same technology that raised the material
standard of living so much? Or would science and the other cultural fields come to the
rescue and perhaps provide a technological miracle or suggest a human alternative to
Lyotard does not engage in this futurology or attempt to read the future, as is common
today in a postmodern society attempting to live in the future. He does say that the newer
the idea in any cultural field, the stronger the initial resistance to it is (MK 149; CPM
102-03; PC 63). The struggle between society and culture is not new to the postmodern
condition, but its type is. If he had a kind of doomsday theory of Western culture, it
would be a degenerated grand narrative not fully aware of the present situation of greater
cultural knowledge (not unlike Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West).
Both modernism and postmodernism acquire new mean- ings during the development of his
theory. At first modernism means the belief in grand narratives of Western civilization,
but then it also comes to mean the type of thinking in any time period since Christianity
that accepts the established ideas and resists any change ("Reponse..." par. 23;
PC 79; "Appendice svelte..." page 1; Political 27). Com- plimentary to this
definition, the postmodern also comes to have the broad definition of a type of thinking
within the accepted views of the day that changes tradition for the better.
In the final analysis, Lyotard does not say how culture can improve society, or if it
can. Indeed, unlike previous eras, culture may have to prevent the destruction of the
earth. To end the postmodern struggle of society and culture, he does not write an action
plan, a series of steps to take. He does leave all of us with an imperative: we should
"bear witness to art" and culture and save its honor in the struggle of the
social forces that would stop the advance of culture toward new forms, and perhaps even
degenerate the existing ones. Culture once again must be taken seriously, and this means
allow- ing it to have its own unique values.
This article was published in translation in the Greek literary Journal diavazo
Correspondence The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence
CPM La Condition postmoderne
Fables Postmodern Fables
MK H Metamonterna Katastasi
Moralites Moralites postmodernes
PC The Postmodern Condition
PE Le Postmoderne explique aux enfants
Political Political Writings
Reader The Lyotard Reader
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William Schultz is Associate Professor at the University of Athens,
Greece, where he teaches Anglo-American Culture, philosophy and literature. He has
published several articles on literary theory and culture, while his main publication is
Genetic Code of Cultures? The Deconstruction of Tradition by Kuhn, Bloom, and Derrida
(1995). Currently, he is seeing through the editorial process of a book called The
Philosophy of Myth and Modern Life: Cassirer's and Langer's Views (Garland, 2000).