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Lyotard, Jean-François


LYOTARD, JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1924–1998), French post-modern and poststructuralist philosopher. Lyotard was a central figure in the theory debates in the last quarter of the 20th century. He combined political activities with an academic career. He was a socialist militant, although later he distanced himself from Marxism as a totalizing theory. He was active in the cause of Algerian liberation, and supported the student revolution of May 1968, when he was at the Philosophy Department at the University of Paris x, Nanterre. Lyotard held several university positions before becoming professor of philosophy at the University of Paris viii, Vincennes. He was active in the Collège International de la Philosophie, with Jacques *Derrida, and also served as visiting professor in various American universities.


Following his early interest in phenomenology (La Phénoménologie, 1954), Lyotard became critical towards his earlier work in Discours, figure (1971), preferring psychoanalysis to phenomenology. He also criticized Marxism and structuralism, including the psychoanalysis of Lacan, in the name of a "libidinal economy" (Economie libidinale, 1974). The publication of Au juste and La Condition postmoderne, both published in 1979, and foremost Le Différend (1984), represent further milestones in his thought.

La Condition postmoderne is the first philosophical essay in which the terms "postmodern" and "postmodernity" are keywords, expressing the idea of the incredibility of meta-narratives. For Lyotard, science does not justify itself; accordingly, it needs narratives, which in turn endow scientific knowledge with coherence and direction.

Lyotard was deeply suspicious of theories purporting to tell "the truth" about something. His thought had many political and social consequences. In characterizing society as "libidinal economy," Lyotard accentuated the role of desire in society. He described reality in terms of energy, feelings, and desires. There are different desires at work in political and social contexts. Lyotard advocated a "libidinal politics" in which a variety of desires would not be destroyed. Totalizing and terrorizing theories would not allow desires to flourish. He further maintained that there is a conflict between truth and justice. If one appeals to general truth in order to realize justice, this is unjust, since one excludes different desires and other views of truth. He argued that the "grand narratives," that present themselves as the comprehensive understanding of humankind and its history, had lost their credibility and failed. He challenged master narratives with the discourse of others and invited the reader to leave the grand narratives. Politics, contrary to what Plato and Aristotle thought, is not the science or art of the good; rather, politicians ought to choose the lesser evil, since other voices are always silenced by political decisions.

Libidinal philosophy thus renounces universal truth and the meta-narratives of science, work, freedom, universal fraternity and history, Marxism, and human emancipation, and uncovers what detached theories seek to keep at a distance. It was modernism's project to realize universality, yet this universality was often conceived as white and European or American. Lyotard did not believe in these narratives of progress and civilization, which culminate in Hegel's vision of history or in F. Fukuyma's ideas concerning the end of history. Lyotard thought that reality is made up of singular events that general theories cannot represent, and he opted for a society with a multiplicity of language games and codes of conduct.

In his work, Lyotard highlighted the role of the non-rational and showed how it differs from intelligible structure. In his critique of Lacan, for instance, he discloses how desire as a non-linguistic force is more than what is understood in the structuralist understanding of the unconscious as a symbolic system. In Lyotard's mind, Auschwitz counters Hegel's thesis that reality and rationality are reversible, in other words, that the deeper structure of reality is rational. Lyotard maintained that, in the Hegelian perspective, Auschwitz would be an accidental, irrational event that does not prevent history from becoming more and more rational. For Lyotard, the event of Auschwitz itself contradicts Hegel's thesis that reality conforms to a rational structure.

There is a clear influence of Emmanuel *Levinas in Lyotard's writings; for instance, both thinkers oppose totalization. But their philosophies are also very different, if only for the fact that Lyotard contrasts ethics and politics.

Lyotard and the "Jew"

Building upon Freud's thinking, Lyotard writes on the unforgettable that is always forgotten. He emphasizes the "forgotten" and defines real history as "anamnesis" (recollection). The "jew," which Lyotard wrote in lower case and between quotation marks, would represent the repressed, which is the object of psychoanalysis as "la recherche du temps perdu" (in search of lost time). The "jew," to whom Lyotard attributes a symbolic meaning, is the name that the West has given to its own unconscious anguish; the "jew" is linked to the disturbing Law and is not to be assimilated to others. Freud, Benjamin, Adorno, Arendt, and Celan would be great non-German Germans and non-Jewish Jews, stateless persons who, in their ethical life, detest geo-philosophy and are always linked to what brings a person out of the sameness, in contact with otherness. Lyotard developed a critical thinking concerning Martin Heidegger's ontology that lacks ethics. In his eyes, Freud belonged to those persons who knew that ethics is not linked to a place. On the background of Lyotard's thoughts of the crisis of the great ideals and of all unifying thinking, the "jews," who hold high the prohibition of making idols, are not to be distilled in a dubious all-encompassing, universal world history that does not distinguish between ideal and reality.


A. Benjamin (ed.), The Lyotard Reader (1989); idem, Judging Lyotard (1992); G. Bennington, Lyotard. Writing the Event (1988); G. Gutting, French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (2001), 318–31; W. James, Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy (1998); idem, Lyotard and the Political (2000); V.E. Taylor and G. Lambert (eds.), J.-F. Lyotard. Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, 3 volumes (2005).

[Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

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