Lyotard, Jean-François (1924–1998)

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Born in Versailles, France, on August 10, 1924, Jean-François Lyotard was educated in Paris. As a child, Lyotard wanted to be a monk, painter, historian, or novelist, but settled a career in philosophy. He began teaching philosophy at the secondary school level in Constantine, Algeria, and later at La Flèche, France. From 1954 to 1966, Lyotard was a member of a leftist revolutionary group called Socialism ou Barbarie (either socialism or barbarism), eventually joining a splinter group called Pouvoir Ouvrier (Worker's Power) in 1964. He broke with the group in 1966 after becoming critical of Marxism's tendency toward universalism. He began work as a philosophy professor, and was employed at University of Paris X, Nanterre, during the student protests of May 1968. He gained a full position at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes, where he spent many years and became an emeritus faculty member in 1987. He was also a founding member of the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. With The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) he achieved international renown, and was guest lecturer at many universities throughout the world. On April 21, 1998, Lyotard died of leukemia in Paris. Lyotard's philosophical influences are diverse, including research on topics in Marxism, psychoanalysis, aesthetics, continental and analytical philosophy. An overall theme throughout his works is the inability for a single theory to capture the whole of reality, typically stressing what has been left out or forgotten in a particular theory.

Lyotard's initial writings of the 1950s and early 1960s were political and focused on the Marxist concerns of Socialism ou Barbarie, with particular attention to the ending the French occupation of Algeria. Additionally, he published La phénoménologie (Phenomenology ) that supports many aspects of phenomenology, but is critical of its tendency to prioritize the transcendental ego in isolation from the material concerns addressed in Marxism. After attending Jacques Lacan's lectures in the 1960s, Lyotard wrote his first major work, Discours, figure to complete his doctorat d'etat. Published in 1971, Discours, figure compares the approaches of structuralism and phenomenology by examining the relationship between textual words of reading, and the figural or visual image of seeing that resists signification and rational concepts. Lyotard argues that text and figure cannot be neatly separated from one another, and neither word nor image should be privileged. His next important work, Libidinal Economy, published in 1974, is strongly influenced by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, though Lyotard later recants his self-professed "evil book" (Perigrinations, 13). Libidinal Economy is a break from the rest of Lyotard's work because it retreats entirely from the intellectualism of rational concepts in favor of an examination of drives, affects, intensities, and energy flows that can be ordered in a variety of ways by society.

Lyotard attained fame with the publication of The Postmodern Condition in 1979, which was commissioned by the Quebec government to examine the status of knowledge in highly developed societies. The publication of this book catapulted Lyotard into the international spotlight. Often, Lyotard's use of the term "postmodernism" is misunderstood as a historical era following the modern period, though in The Postmodern Condition Lyotard insists that the postmodern occurs within the modern period as an "incredulity toward meta-narratives" (p. xxiv). For Lyotard, modernism relies upon meta-narratives that are overarching discourses that try to explain all phenomena according to their own terms.

Lyotard utilizes Ludwig Wittgenstein's terminology of "language games" during this period to suggest that different language games follow their own rules and cannot be adequately translated to one another. While scientific discourse is denotative, ethical discourse is prescriptive, and to translate the descriptive into the prescriptive would be analogous to translating the rules of chess into those of checkers. Universal grand narratives in modernity suppose that language games are indeed commensurable and result in a kind of "terror" that cannot accept other kinds of games. Lyotard questions the hierarchical priority of scientific and technological forms of knowledge in developed societies that exclude other types of knowledge. According to Lyotard, grand narratives cannot legitimate their authority, and the postmodern breaks through the modern when grand narratives lose their credibility. The epistemological questions raised in The Postmodern Condition turn toward political themes in The Differend.

Published in 1983, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute is thought to be Lyotard's most important work because of its elaboration of the central concept of the book, the "differend." Lyotard defines the différend as a "case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments" (p. xi). Lyotard uses the instance of proving the horror of the gas chambers at Auschwitz as his paradigmatic model of a différend. Revisionist historian Robert Faurisson denies that the Holocaust occurred because there are no victims who were eyewitnesses to the atrocity. In order for there to be an eyewitness, one would have to be a victim that survived the gas chambers, making it impossible to establish the crime according to Faurisson's criterion. This situation is used as a touchstone to examine various political scenarios in which the victim cannot establish the existence of an injustice, because his or her experience does not conform to present criterion for establishing a legitimate "injustice," and for that reason, the plaintiff becomes a victim of a further wrong. A différend follows the structure of a double bind, where it is impossible for the plaintiff to prove damage by the rules of current authority, and differs from litigation that can be established within the present rules. For Lyotard, the différend is signaled by a sublime feeling because it involves an overwhelming feeling of pleasure and a feeling of pain. The pain in the sublime comes from the inability to express the wrong of the différend, but the feeling of pleasure arises from the potential for the creation of new idioms of discourse that can express the wrong. Lyotard uses Kant's theory of aesthetical judgments of the sublime to describe a theory of political judgment where judgments are made without recourse to a universal rule. Because of the incommensurability of language genres, the différend cannot be eliminated for good, but one can bear witness to différends and even strain to hear their call.

Much of Lyotard's later work explores Kant's theory of the sublime in greater detail. Lyotard also published many important books of essays focusing on art, literature, history, technology, politics, and postmodernism, in addition to books on several other topics. According to Geoffrey Bennington (1988), Lyotard personally believed that his major works were Discourse, figure, Libidinal Economy, and The Differend.

See also Postmodernism.


works by lyotard

Discours, figure. Paris: Klincksieck, 1971.

Économie libidinale. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1974. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant as Libidinal Economy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

Au Juste. With Jean-Loup Thébaud. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1979. Translated by Wlad Godzich as Just Gaming (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

Le différend. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1983. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele as The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

The Lyotard Reader, edited by Andrew Benjamin. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1989.

L'inhuman: Causeries sur le temps. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1988. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby as The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).

Leçons sur l'analytique du sublime. Paris: Galilée, 1991. Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg as Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).

works about lyotard

Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Readings, Bill. Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics. London: Routledge, 1991.

Williams, James. Lyotard and the Political. London: Routledge, 2000.

Karin Fry (2005)