Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Postmodernism”

1979

Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity towards meta-narratives” as knowledge is atomized among disciplines that no longer inform each other and “mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative.” Instead we have “clouds” of colliding, heterogenous language games (think David Mitchell!). The subject, unjoined by continuity of meta-narrative, breaks into heterogenous moments of subjectivity, rather than a whole that can be assembled (as in modernism – think Woolf). The capital of this system is information in the form of the new; all else is discarded. With no unifying concept, aesthetic judgment becomes vital to “justice” for Lyotard, but it must be reflective, not determining – how our faculties interact with one another as we move between “the denotative, the prescriptive, the performative, the political, the cognitive, the artistic, etc.”

If for Kant the “aesthetic feeling” in the beautiful is the harmonious play of imagination and understanding, for Lyotard it is much more the feeling of disharmony that Kant locates in the sublime. Rather than reason and understanding battling through horror and awe, however, for Lyotard the “postmodern sublime”

“occurs when we are affected by a multitude of unpresentables without reference to reason as their unifying origin. Justice, then, would not be a definable rule, but an ability to move and judge among rules in their heterogeneity and multiplicity. In this respect, it would be more akin to the production of art than a moral judgment in Kant’s sense.”

“But where modern art presents the unpresentable as a missing content within a beautiful form, as in Marcel Proust, postmodern art, exemplified by James Joyce, puts forward the unpresentable by forgoing beautiful form itself, thus denying what Kant would call the consensus of taste. Furthermore, says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the unpresentable, “and this state is constant” (Lyotard 1984, 79). The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the “new,” and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.”

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