You are on page 1of 12

STUDENT: 316773 Year I

Theories & Methodologies
Spring 2001

“Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it
refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to
tolerate the incommensurable”.
(Jean Francois Lyotard). Discuss.

Lyotard’s “report on knowledge”1 makes key assumptions: that in preceding eras authorities

controlled knowledge and metanarratives applied universal rationality to the unexplainable,

while generalising away differences. This narrow view of modernism leads to an inaccurate

definition of the postmodern as a complete reaction against such concepts. Its predictions

have often proved accurate, but the model is too prescriptive. Here, “postmodernism” denotes

characteristics of - what I perceive as - an era of post-industrial but late rather than post

capitalism, where buying and selling have been expanded rather than surpassed. I restrict

focus to western society over the last twenty-five years2, allowing us to judge Lyotard’s

legacy against the accelerating new economic order. This essay contends that postmodern

knowledge is a diverse field in which the context of consumer capitalism is the only constant.

While state and academic authorities decreasingly control knowledge, it has become a tool of

corporations, causing “hyperreality”. Here, “ability to tolerate the incommensurable” is not

necessarily positive, as anything outside commoditization is potentially incommensurable. Yet

postmodern knowledge is not entirely negative, and I will demonstrate its paradoxical ability

to both sensitise and desensitise us to differences. Examples of the deployment of postmodern

knowledge will mainly be taken from literature, though other cultural forms are also utilised.

Postmodern knowledge expands modernist dismissal of conventional authority.

Damien Hirst and John Cage challenge academic authority over what art and music actually

are. Modernism has inevitably become an institution itself, against which some
Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

postmodernism is aimed. Art as “high culture” is attacked, not so much shifting towards

populism as through what Jameson regards as “broadening the cultural realm”3. Mass culture

exists outside academic - even state – authority.

The Postmodern Condition hints at ascension from academic authority to market

forces, yet its rejection of privileged paradigms does not degrade authority in any simple

manner. In literary criticism “incredulity towards metanarratives”4 crucially reflects the rise of

marginalized minority groups, ironing out inaccurate generalisations. Yet theory remains the

realm of academic institutions, albeit ones of broader social base. Shift beyond objectivity has

also led to more subjective perceptions of scientific authority, but it cannot be delegitimised

on Lyotard's terms. He felt that legitimacy only came through autonomous rules within

narratives, and that science avoids narrative legitimisation until it is forced to, forming

political institutions. However, as Connor points out, the autonomous performative narrative

science rejects (“it is because it is”) is not the same as the narrative group of social

interaction, organisation and hierarchy. Moreover, Lyotard has attacked the scientific

metanarrative using one of his own creation – that of isolated linguistic clusters. He negates

the overlapping of metanarrative collapse and implementation of the postmodern condition.

The broadening cultural sphere has not led to increased academic-information access

as Lyotard hoped, but greater inequality. This may be a result of Jameson's “demolition”,

pursued by intellectuals since the Enlightenment. That is, increasing the realm of what we do

not understand by pushing away folklore. This created space for a new authority whose

paradigms are amorphous, subtly implemented and more widely encompassing. The great

postmodern authority over knowledge is that of late capitalism. As Jameson puts it,

“postmodernity replicates or reproduces – reinforces, the logic of late consumer capitalism” 5.

This is ever clearer as the “digital and communications revolution” accelerates. Local

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

community knowledge of the early Twentieth Century, informed by aphorism and “old wives

tales”6, is now informed by advertising jingles and global television. Community knowledge

was often inaccurate but wholly for the good of those sharing it; postmodern knowledge has

the ulterior motive of continuing the process of buying and selling. The state and academia

never held power at this level, and are decreasingly influential as a result. As Lyotard

predicted, knowledge is decreasingly related to the training of minds7. For the first time

abstracts8 have become commodities. Multinational corporations now possess more wealth

than many small nations9.

Nevertheless, academic institutions still dictate “literature” to a greater extent than that

sold. There is little analysis of contemporary works focussing on “mass” appeal rather than

“academic” postmodern concepts, Larkin's poetry a rare example. Here lies a central paradox.

Postmodernity dismisses metanarratives and objective generalisation, in which case we

cannot speak in periodizing terms, of “Spirits of the Age” such as postmodernity, anyway.

Lyotard's tolerance of the incommensurable partly covers this. His isolated “linguistic

clouds”10 of existence are a necessary paralogical tool. Fragmentation is similarly prevalent in

postmodern literature. The Tesseract presents gangster boss Don Pepe as a series of

contradictory anecdotes. Upon his death the narrator reflects that: “These fragments, and

others like them, were the form in which the mestizo continued to exist. Together, they

represented his life as accurately as a shoal of milkfish represents the South China Sea”11.

Postmodern knowledge is fuelled by tensions. Lyotard's prophesy of corporate and

state conflict when corporations possess the greater technology12 has come to pass with

multinational drugs companies refusing Third World discounts despite governments’

requests13. “Alternative” pop music is a perfect example of commoditization encompassing

the subversive, once the “line between high art and commercial forms is increasingly difficult

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

to draw”14 15
. Naomi Klein provides a case study of marketing compromising culture and

education16. Such conflicts inspire cyber-punk fiction, where “sign and signifier twist toward

the sky in the unending ritual of commerce”17. Its worlds are intentionally little removed from

contemporary society, gritty prose extolling bathos behind technology. Modernist science

fiction was similarly a reaction against utopian fantasy, yet Orwell and Huxley’s feared

authoritarian states are not only superseded by threatening capitalism, they may have come

about through corporate hands. “Big Brother”esque CCTV allows authorities to observe every

move in public space, but many cameras are actually owned by multinational companies in

their outlets, rather than the state18.

This authority causes existence in “hyperreality"19, where reality scrambles to fulfil

technological demands of representation20. This is far fetched, but carries weight. A personal

anecdote21: I was at a rural house when the television evening news reported that a train had

killed two girls across nearby marshland. It was only then that I looked out of the window to

discover the lights of the emergency services in the distance. Reality was secondary to its

representation. Perception is media conditioned, a copy of a dubious, if not false, outside

reality Baudrillard dubbed simulacra. Even postmodern youth movements, from punks

onwards, appear simulacra clawing at the spirit of genuinely oppressed historical youths, the

Edelweiss Pirates or jeunesse dorée. At conditioning’s limit, Norman Finkelstein identifies a

“holocaust industry” manipulated by corporations and states for their own ends. His claim of

an over-horrific holocaust representation is dubious, but as an event beyond normal

comprehension it seems tangible for postmodern society to build a misrepresentative detached


So whilst postmodernism may not simply be a tool of the authorities their influence

cannot be underestimated. Nonetheless, I feel the last two years may have hinted at late

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

capitalism reaching terminal velocity. Saul Landau22 believes its unprecedented strength arose

from the universal disarray of socialist systems. Recently there have been rumblings of labour

movement recurrence, under the anti-corporate banner23. It is unrealistic to expect “Reclaim

the Streets” protests and Seattle riots to damage such an ingrained system, but they may prove

a turning point24. If late capitalism was the zenith of postmodernism, we may be on the verge

of a new era.

Postmodern knowledge can both sensitise and desensitise us to differences. Its sheer

breadth and diversity is sensitising; a novel by Irvine Welsh is barely comparable with an Ian

McEwan one. Lyotard regarded postmodern knowledge as sensitising where isolated

linguistic clusters usurp metadiscourses. Yet his differentiation is based on perception looking

outside clusters that must overlap. Otherwise we would not be able to ingratiate ourselves

with other cultures – class, race, gender – unable to acknowledge their existence. There is

individualism to Lyotard's theory (surely the logical end of linguistic incompatibility is that

we can only communicate with ourselves) at odds with postmodern death of the subject.

Jameson felt the prevalence of pastiche25 in postmodernism desensitises us to

differences as we define ourselves through others’ voices: “today we are almost unable to

focus on our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic

representation of our own current experience”26. This is unnecessarily pessimistic. All work

must have influences; the expansion of intertextuality is not empty cannibalism but reflective

of knowledge’s democratisation. Pastiche and nostalgia sensitise us to differences built

through history27. Any invocation of the past inevitably reflects our own time, a vocalised

response against our cultural backdrop. The Color Purple presents a universal human rights

message through the aesthetic of Twentieth Century abuses, indirectly reflecting the rise of

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

female African-American authors of the time it was written28. Similarly, Welsh Eisteddfod

festivals may be simulacra for a non-existent druidic past29, but are still a topical statement of

identity for a newly devolved state.

Pastiche sensitises us to differences between narratives, subverting subconscious

conventions thus drawing our attention to them:

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree
for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in
a small café in Ricksmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all
this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This
time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything . . .
This is not her story.
(Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy)

Rather than a sign of postmodern nihilism, “intertextuality”30 is not straightforwardly

detached from previous referencing/influencing of other authors. Instead, absorption of the

past loses its ability to sensitise us due to increasing repression31. This April an Atlanta federal

court placed a publication injunction on Gone With The Wind pastiche The Wind Done Gone,

for piracy32. It appears pastiche violates capitalist property rights.

Metafiction and the manipulation of time and space similarly increase our sensitivity

to difference, sometimes through multiple viewpoints. The authorial narrator addressing us

from the text (compounded in Slaughterhouse 5 when the authorial narrator comments on the

protagonist nearly encountering the author’s historical self) shifts attention from sign to

signifier. When Fowles suddenly addresses us from his Victorian novel pastiche, his crisis of

narrative expands to one of existence itself: “My characters still exist, and in a reality no less,

no more, real than the one I have just broken”. Minus objective reality, Vonnegut defines the

importance of an author as merely “a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization

and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations”33. As Slaughterhouse 5’s

protagonist is “spastic in time”34 so is the narrative. Suspense is debunked by revealing its

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

conclusion and opening within the introduction. The death of time has social implications, as

death is no longer important. Hence the repetitive meiosis of “So it goes” whenever death is

encountered. Conventionality makes this shocking, but we are now aware of the conventions

themselves. The Tesseract similarly views the same events through different characters. But

do multiple points of view allow for depth of characterisation seen in modernist streams of

consciousness? Slaughterhouse 5 is a profound work, but Billy Pilgrim is not psychologised

to the level of Mrs Ramsay or Holden Caulfield. Moreover, whilst postmodernity may be best

represented through the disorientation and artificiality metafiction provides, we should not

ignore the element of voguish aesthetic (the difference now being incommensurability behind

the aesthetic). Metafiction's self-referentiality has been used since Elizabethan times to the

same end, to bring out the author as “an idiot”:

Life's but a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
(Macbeth, Act V.v)

Postmodern knowledge can even be indicative of increased homogeneity. The

breakdown of artificial divisions merged philosophy, literary criticism et al as Theory.

Heightened awareness of the performative, exemplified by Queer Theory, denotes more

similarity than difference between people. Lyotard and Baudrillard both reflect the crisis of

representation felt by postmodernists, that there can be no judgement now there are no

objective paradigms to legitimate it. Their work is a compromise, identifying floating groups

of meaning against a backdrop of meaninglessness. We exist in a bubble, in linguistic clusters

or simulacra. In its broadest sense, postmodern knowledge can only have a negative effect on

sensitivity. Infinite subjectivity derived from death of objective truth means there can no

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

longer be such a thing as “difference”.

So, our “ability to tolerate the incommensurable”. This could be rephrased as

“inability to question the incommensurable”. Firstly, “hyperreality” makes anything outside

commoditization incommensurable. Secondly, postmodernism is a descendent of Nietzche's

infamous declaration of God's death, in which knowledge no longer concerns itself with belief

systems but disbelief systems. That the only reality reflected in a text is its own autonomy

leads to the New Critics’ notion of textual meaning defined individually by reader. Both may

be literally accurate, but are a point at which Theory loses constructive use. The toleration of

the incommensurable has led to mind-bending and beautifully ambiguous works, but has also

seen the death of the grand gesture. Postmodernity cannot produce texts infused with the

sense of self-importance found in Paradise Lost or Ulysses. Writers are concerned that: “the

larger the searchlight, the larger the circumference of the unknown”35.

In conclusion, Lyotard indicates the importance of late capitalism, but does not predict

the extent of its authority over knowledge. Commoditization governs focus on signifiers,

though examples through this essay also indicate the powerful influence of the Second World

War. Art has responded to postmodernism's idea of infinite subjectivity with works

characterised by anxiety, cynicism, irony. An idealistic forecast would be the decreasing

conditioning of late capitalism. Art might reconstruct its older values without looking outside

personal microcosms. The ironic likelihood, however, is that this concept will be sold to us.

2,231 Words.

Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

Anon (2000) CCTV FAQ

Anon (2001) Glaxo Stops Africans Buying Cheap Aids Drugs

Anon (2000) Safety Questions Follow Train Deaths

Adams, Douglas The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: A Trilogy In Four Parts
William Heinemann: London, 1993

Abrams, M.H. “Modernism and Postmodernism” in Abrams, M.H. A Glossary Of Literary
Terms: Seventh Edition
USA: Hardcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999

Campell, Harry, ed. (2000) The Eisteddfod

Connor, Steven Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction To Theories Of The Contemporary,
Second Edition
Oxford: Blackwell, 1997

Ellison, Michael (2001) Frankly, Writer's Estate Gives A Damn About The Wind Done Gone

Finkelstein, Norman G.The Holocaust Industry: Reflections On The Exploitation Of Jewish
New York; London: Verso, 2000

Fowles, John The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Great Britain: Vintage, 1996

Garland, Alex The Tesseract
London: Penguin, 1998

Gibson, William All Tomorrow’s Parties
London: Penguin/Viking, 1999

Harvey, David The Condition Of Postmodernity: An Enquiry Into The Origins Of Cultural
Student 316773 Theories & Methodologies Essay: "Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the
authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable".

Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1990

Hoggart, Richard The Uses Of Literacy: Aspects Of Working-Class Life, With Special
London: Chatto and Windus, 1957

Jameson, Fredric The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings On The Postmodern, 1983 – 1998
New York: Verso, 1998

Klein, Naomi No logo : no space, no choice, no jobs : taking aim at the brand bullies
N.London: Flamingo, 2000

Lawson, Mark (2001) It’s A Sin To Kill A Mocking Word

Lyotard, Jean-François trans. Bennington, Geoff and Massumi, Brian The Postmodern
Condition: A Report On Knowledge
United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1984

Shakespeare, William Penguin Popular Classics: Macbeth
London: Penguin, 1994

Vonnegut, Kurt Slaughterhouse 5
London: Vintage, 1991

Walker, Alice The Color Purple
London: The Women’s Press, 1992

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
2 Late capitalism has not expanded our post-industrial society to a post-industrial world. Instead, the
West enjoys its post-industrial status only by shifting the mass of production to the Third World. As
Naomi Klein puts it, “the Third World has always existed for the comfort of the first” (No Logo,
Introduction pg.xviii). It is important to remember all examinations into the state of academic and
cultural knowledge in the West are framed in this cultural context.
3 Jameson, Fredric “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Cultural Turn
4 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, foreword xxiv. A metanarrative is a narrative that explains other
narratives, such as Marxism or science. In postmodern literary theory, metanarratives have been
moulded into unique but non-exclusive "micronarratives" that completely fit groups of texts
Jameson, Fredric “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Cultural Turn, pg. 20.
Hoggart The Uses Of Literary
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition pg. 4
Images, representations, styles, even emotions.
Klein, Naomi No Logo “A Web Of Brands”, pg.xxi
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, pg.9
Alex Garland, The Tesseract, page 323.
“IBM sending satellites into space”, Lyotard The Postmodern Condition pg. 5
See “Glaxo Stops Africans Buying Cheap Aids Drugs” for one example
Jameson, Fredric “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Cultural Turn, pg. 2
Music’s constant revivals - mid-nineties Britpop reinvesting in sixties aesthetics - adhere to Jameson's
“nostalgia mode”. It is music based on the paradox of global influence and the toleration, often
exemplification, of cultural minorities. While the ideology of exemplifying minorities is one of the
most liberating in popular culture, it is also one most at risk of relegation to an aesthetic sheen covering
commoditization. Hip-hop was initially an evocative symbol of cultural identity. So much so in 1989
that N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) found their debut album banned by the state authority of the
American Supreme Court. Yet by 2000 multinational record companies had adopted the genre and
Rolling Stone magazine dubbed N.W.A.'s reunion as "Niggaz With Accountants". This adheres to
Barthes' idea that capitalism works through cycles that are pushed out of intertia by bursts of
innovation that do not, however, significantly alter the cycle itself. A descent to meaninglessness is
inevitible under Baudrillard's portrayal of the media as a form that by its very nature dilutes sign to
Klein, Naomi No Code, "No Space", pgs. 3-107.
William Gibson All Tomorrows Parties page 6.
Jean Baudrillard, described in Connor Postmodernist Culture, pgs. 51-60
Connected with Paul Virilio's perception of postmodern knowledge opposing nature, described in
Connor Postmodernist Culture pg. 255-6
Web version of news story, BBC Wales “Safety questions follow train deaths”
Connor Postmodernist Culture, pg. 48
Klein, Naomi No Logo.
Baudrillard felt that the media could not be liberating, as any subversive message was degraded to
signifier as part of its very nature. Its great failure was that it is a one way medium (as satirised in Tom
Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound “whodunit” play, where a member of the audience transpires as
the murderer). The Internet is a new media capable of true two-way interaction, even though it is
increasingly commoditized, and this is where the anit-corporate movement flourishes. It is a worldwide
form of what Baudrillard identified in the (then un-billboarded) street, “the alternative and subversive
form of mass media”.
Rather than parody, for there is no longer a normative principle from which satire can be derived.
Jameson, Fredric “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Cultural Turn pg. 9
27 Linda Hutcheon (Connor Postmodernist Culture, pg. 131) describes “histiographic metafiction”
where we believe the falsification of history, at the same time aware it is a lie. Take the bombing of
Dresden in Slaughterhouse 5.
28 Take Celie's declaration: "I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook . . . but I'm here"
Gwybodiadur: A Welsh Informationary
Literally, directly “cutting and pasting” earlier texts. But in a sense also taking on others’ voices
through pastiche.
Where music “sampling" was previously outside the authorities” (originally in reggae music, then hip-
hop and underground “rave”), it is now the realm of “superstar DJs” with extensive royalties on
borrowed music
The Guardian, “Frankly, Writer’s Estate Give A Damn About The Wind Done Gone”, and “It’s a Sin
To Kill A Mocking Word”
Slaughterhouse 5, page 4.
Slaughterhouse 5, page 17
Alex Garland, The Tesseract, pg.329