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Jean-François Lyotard has long been recognized as one of the major figures in the development of postmodern thought. Although best known as a philosopher and cultural theorist, Lyotard also wrote extensively on the subject of art, producing numerous books, exhibition catalogues and essays over the course of his long career. His more general philosophical enquiries, particularly his concern with the concept of the sublime, also constitute important contributions to critical and aesthetic theory and artistic practice, and after considering the nature of those we shall move on to look at his writings on art in more detail. Postmodernism is to be considered as a generalized cultural reaction to received authority in all its various forms—social, political, intellectual and artistic. For Lyotard, Western history since the Enlightenment has been dominated by a series of ‘metanarratives’ (or grand narratives) which have demanded our undivided loyalty. Both Marxism and liberal democracy are examples of such metanarratives in the political domain, although analogues can be found in other areas of discourse as well. Modernism, as a case in point, can be regarded as the metanarrative of artistic activity and aesthetic theory for the bulk of the twentieth century, and, in effect, claimed the right to legislate over artistic production during this period. Metanarratives command considerable authority, to the point where they can become tyrannical by enforcing conformity to a norm. In order to be taken seriously by their peers in the art world, for example, most twentieth-century artists had to paint in a modernist rather than a realist style; and to experiment rather than to continue to develop traditional modes of expression. It is against such enforced conformity that postmodernism is directed, its objective being to encourage diversity of expression in all areas of discourse instead of adherence to one supposedly superior metanarrative. Postmodernists, in other words, are champions of the cause of difference. Lyotard’s concept of the ‘differend’ captures this commitment to difference very neatly. The differend is an irresolvable dispute between two parties: irresolvable because the parties are using incommensurable ‘phrase regimens’, or discourses, with their own internal criteria for deciding arguments. Put simply, their agendas are mutually exclusive, and the dispute will only be resolved if each agrees to respect the other and allow it to continue in its own way; or if, as more usually happens in the real world, one side imposes its will on the other and suppresses the opposing agenda. The overriding concern of Lyotard’s work is to encourage us to respect the differend, and thus, in his eyes, significantly to reduce political conflict. Lyotard is also committed to what he calls the ‘event’; that is, to the experience of the immediate moment, which is conceived always to be open and undetermined. It is one of the great failings of metanarratives that they are not open to the event, but claim to be able to forecast or determine its outcome (as in the
2000. the sublime is a limit. For Kant and Burke. for example). and other eighteenth-century theorists of the sublime such as Edmund Burke. see Sim. postmodernism reveals itself to be an updated form of scepticism. 1790) entitled Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1991). the subject of Lyotard’s most extended study on the subject of art. Gothic novelists such as Ann Radcliffe made extensive use of Burke’s theories. For Lyotard. given that it calls into question the overall viability of his philosophical project—to demonstrate how our world conforms to our concepts of it.) Lyotard’s writings on art are extensive. although the former is more exercised by this than the latter. Lyotard displays an obsessive concern with the concept of the sublime over his later career. (For a detailed study of the latter phenomenon.Key writers on art: The twentieth century 174 case of Marxism’s theory of a dialectic inexorably working through human history towards a specific end). Lightning storms. Postmodernist thought in general is concerned to draw our attention to epistemological limits. Art at its best for Lyotard makes us aware of the event and of the fact of difference. is a case in point. and reveal a deep and life-long interest in the topic. Duchamp’s Trans/Formers (1977) is a collection of . by definition. but it is one that we must accord respect rather than struggle against. The sublime constitutes a limit for both Kant and Burke. but not a conception of. Rather surprisingly for someone concerned to challenge the cultural dominance of modernity and the modern. Burke had contended that. too. Marcel Duchamp. when confronted by objects of vast dimension or power. we were struck with a sense of awe. Contemporary Continental Philosophy: The New Scepticism. Concepts like infinity and totality could not. In its concern with demarcating limits. He treats it as the role of art to be in dialogue with this phenomenon: ‘that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible: this is what is at stake in modern painting’ (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Building on the work of Kant. the sublime constituted that which lay beyond our human understanding (in Kant’s case. particularly the capabilities of the lone individual. Burke in particular had a considerable impact on contemporary aesthetics. he shows a marked preference for the work of ostensibly modernist artists. be represented—they were quite literally inconceivable. to the extent of writing an extended commentary on Kant’s writings on the topic (particularly the Critique of Judgement. with the former’s many descriptions of the ‘sublime’ landscape in her narratives drawing directly on Burke for inspiration. waterfalls and sheer precipices make the Radcliffe heroine aware of her vulnerability and insignificance in the general scheme of things: nature far outstrips human capabilities. precisely what Radcliffe’s heroines experience when they are exposed to brute nature in their travels through the Alps and the Apennines (in The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Italian. the realm of the noumenal or ‘thing-in-itself’). pointing out the gaps in our claims to knowledge. Kant found himself wrestling with the problem that we can have a concept of. and regards the faith placed in human reason by the ‘Enlightenment project’ and its followers as excessive. Lyotard regards the sublime as a manifestation of the unpresentable. Our recognition of this failure of our understanding was a potential source of pain in our desire to make sense of the world around us. influencing a whole school of writers in later eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century Britain—the ‘Gothic’ novel tradition. infinity and totality. 1979).
Form. frustrating the impulse to systematize that lies at the root of the metanarrative of modernity. At the moment. 1988).Jean-François Lyotard 175 essays concentrating on two works of that artist: The Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors. ‘try not to understand and to show that you haven’t understood’. ‘a figure that could not be intuited—at least that of a woman having four dimensions’. In each case the artist has managed to escape the constricting effect of his metanarrative. such that they can be said to ‘mean’ something in terms of the development of a particular metanarrative (the Enlightenment project. Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire paintings are claimed to capture events “directly”…without the mediation or protection of a “pretext” (Peregrinations: Law. Duchamp forces us to recognize the limits of our knowledge and the reach of our reason. Duchamp’s ‘pointlessness’ prevents us from doing that. Barnett Baruch Newman’s paintings similarly seek to be ‘the occurrence. he argues. The Illuminating Gas. and organic unity was assumed to be achievable. for example). Lyotard claims of the former. although it is important to note that these are not historically specific terms for Lyotard. thus bringing Duchamp under the heading of the postmodern. Various other artists are praised by Lyotard for their ability to bear witness to the event and the fact of the differend. instead. having for Lyotard ‘something uncommentable’ about it that defeats the critic. does so reluctantly. Event. The ability to present the unpresentable becomes an index of aesthetic value for Lyotard. and Given: 1. where the entire concept of metanarrative is under attack. 2. and art is for Lyotard a critical way of revealing the shortcomings of the . the critic must cease to speak for the metanarrative. The Waterfall. Modernism and postmodernism are. In his own way. Modernism is no less capable of achieving this state than postmodernism. an artist who can be observed ‘stripping himself of our collective imagery’ in order to present us with a ‘primal landscape’ as yet unmarked by the designs of metanarratives (The Lyotard Reader). Lyotard goes on to praise the ‘pointlessness’ of Duchamp’s work. challenges the notion of a ‘totalizing and unifying machine’ in any area of human endeavour. The critic acknowledges the limits of understanding—yet another rejection of the Enlightenment ethos. 1988). Which is to say that the work presents the unpresentable. but modernism. instead. What critics traditionally strive to do is to place artworks in historico-cultural context. The presence of that nostalgia helps us to discriminate between the modern and the postmodern. the unpresentable is ‘put forward only as missing contents’. communicating a feeling of nostalgia for a world where the fact of the unpresentable was not yet realized (or was ignored altogether). and to convey a sense of the openness of the future to us. the moment that has arrived’ (The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Valerio Adami is another Lyotard favourite. to be understood as cyclical movements: there have been modernisms and postmodernisms in the past. and there will be again in the future. however. who is plainly refusing to conform to what is culturally expected of the artist. Duchamp’s work is held to resist critical analysis. To resist totalization is to resist the project in which all metanarratives are engaged. ‘It figures the unfigurable’. modernist or otherwise. whereas in postmodern art we realize that organic unity is an illusion and that the unpresentable is of necessity always with us (Postmodern Condition). Faced by an artist like Duchamp. the ‘machinery’ of which. and. we are deemed to be squarely within a postmodern period. In modern art. even (The Large Glass). Lyotard claims.
Mass. 1988. Derrida . 1979). Biography Jean-François Lyotard Born Versailles 1924. Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille.). 1980.. Duchamp’s Trans/Formers (Les Transformateurs Duchamp. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Modern French Philosophy (Le même et l’autre. 1992.Key writers on art: The twentieth century 176 metanarrative project. 1966–70. Of the Sublime: Presence in Question (Du sublime. 1988). 1987. D. Vincennes. 1989. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. New York: Columbia University Press.). trans.: Blackwell. the University of Nanterre.ScottFox and J. and at Johns Hopkins University. 1974–6. 1984. with others). Peregrinations: Law. In 1954 he joined the Socialisme ou barbaric group. NC and London: Duke University Press. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (L’inhumain: Causerie sur le temps. Paraesthetics: Foucault. Lyotard: Writing the Event . Reader: he Lyotard Reader . Bennington. Lyotard. NY: SUNY Press. Paris. Lyotard was Visiting Professor at (amongst other places) the University of California at San Diego and Berkeley. the sublime is firmly back on both the philosophical and artistic agenda. Baudrillard. 1993. He died on 21 April 1998.McLeod. Event. and Lyotard . L. 1991. For the time being anyway. .. 1977). J. 1988.M. Jeffrey S. trans. Oxford and Cambridge. Form . Andrew Benjamin (ed. He was founder-member of the Collège International de Philosophic. Pefanis. 1950–52. London and New York: Routledge. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. G. London: Methuen. Bibliography Main texts The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir. Judging Lyotard . Algeria. He published The Postmodern Condition in 1979. Carroll. 1959–66. Durham. 1988. Descombes. 1991. Secondary literature Benjamin. and at Yale University. 1979). Baltimore. 1990. 1983 (President 1984–6). Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1970–87 (where he was Professor of Philosophy from 1972 to 1987). I. He became a lecturer at the University of Paris. V. CA: Lapis Press. Librett. Harding. Oxford: Blackwell. trans. and the University of Paris VIII.. trans. A. and at the Prytanée Militaire de la Flèche. He taught philosophy at a high school in Constantine. 1952–59. trans. 1992.. Albany. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. and became the main writer on Algerian issues for the group’s journal in 1955. (ed. Venice.