Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

political and those of the aesthetic, of the producers and of the recipients, cannot be prescribed, and it will remain open to trial, error and debate. But it is time to abandon that dead-end dichotomy of politics and aesthetics which for too long has dominated accounts of modernism, including the aestheticist trend within poststructuralism. The point is not to eliminate the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art. The point is to heighten that tension, even to rediscover it and to bring it back into focus in the arts as well as in criticism. No matter how troubling it may be, the landscape of the postmodern surrounds us. It simultaneously delimits and opens our horizons. It's our problem and our hope.❖

Jean-François Lyotard ( 1926-1998) was born in Versailles and was educated in Paris at the prestigious Lycée Louis le Grand and the University of Paris. After completing his studies, he held a research post with France's National Center for Scientific Research, which (unlike the National Science Foundation [NSF] in the United States) frequently grants research positions to philosophers as well as scientists. He taught at Nanterre, where the events of 1968 are generally said to have started, from 1966 to 1970; he then taught at Vincennes from 1970 to 1972, before teaching at various branches of the University of Paris. At the time of his death in 1998, Lyotard was teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. Lyotard wrote numerous books, including Economie libidinale ( 1974), Le Differend ( 1983), and Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants ( 1986)--some of which are translated in excerpted form. He was best known, however, for the 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, a work commissioned by the Province of Quebec on the modest topic "A Report on Knowledge". Even though the book is small and parts of it quite straightforward philosophical discourse on discourse, Postmodern Condition was an immediate sensation--so much so that it could itself be considered a beginning point in the history of postmodernism, much as Derrida's 1966 lecture was the beginning of poststructuralism. The selection from that book presents Lyotard's most enduring idea--that postmodernity arises with the collapse of the grand narrative of the Enlightenment. This figure of a deflated grand narrative elegantly condenses the idea that modernity was, after all, more a narrative than the Truth; once revealed as such, modernity loses its power. No one has better captured the assumptions and language of postmodernity.


The Postmodern Condition

Jean-François Lyotard( 1979)

In contemporary society and culture--postindustrial society, postmodern culture-- the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.

The decline of narrative can be seen as an effect of the blossoming of techniques and technologies since the Second World War, which has shifted emphasis from the

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Excerpt from Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, trans., The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge ( Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1984 [ 1979]), pp. 37-41.

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