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Theory after the Postmodern Condition
University of Leicester, UK
Abstract. In the context of an apparent crisis of grand narratives and continuing reference to the postmodern condition, this article considers aspects of the development of theory in organization studies over the past decade and offers some reﬂections on prospects for the future. These issues are presented via a reading of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition and the way that this book has been received in organization studies. This ‘paralogical’ reading contests a number of widespread assumptions in organization studies about Lyotard and French theory, and provides the opening for a discussion of the future of theory in organization studies. This involves asking questions about (1) the consumption of theory in organization studies; (2) the concepts in currency in organization studies today; and (3) the shifting divisions of organization studies. Key words. agonistics, critical/critique, ethics, judgement/judging, knowledge, legitimation, morality, paralogy, performativity
‘Today, life is fast. It vaporizes morals. Futility suits the postmodern, for words as well as things. But that doesn’t keep us from asking questions: how to live, and why? The answers are deferred. As they always are, of course. But this time, there is a semblance of knowing: that life is going every which way. But do we know this? We represent it to ourselves rather. Every which way of life is ﬂaunted, exhibited, enjoyed for the love of variety. The moral of morals would be that of “aesthetic” pleasure. Here,
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies?
then, are ﬁfteen notes on postmodern aestheticization. And against it! You’re not done living because you chalk it up to artiﬁce.’ Jean-François Lyotard, from the preface to Moralites Postmodernes ´ (English translation: Lyotard, 1997: vii)
I have been asked to write something that reﬂects on the state of organization studies in the light of developments over the past decade and make projective comments about the next decade. The general frame is one of ‘W(h)ither Organization Studies?’ which poses questions of the viability (wither?) and the direction (whither?) of organization studies. Faced with this, I should admit that I am struck by something peculiarly anachronistic about this question. It might be that I haven’t been getting out enough, but most of the work that I read and most of the people with whom I talk these days are rather suspicious of presupposing a ‘totality’, that is, a unity that is attributed to things such as an organization, a society, a discourse or a person. Indeed, it might be that over the past decade those doing organization studies have become increasingly suspicious of assuming integration, unity and wholeness. To frame it positively, and a little grandly, in recent years organization studies has become increasingly attuned to complexity, discontinuity, conﬂict, resistance and difference. This kind of story will be familiar to those who have followed the ‘paradigm debates’ of recent years. When, ten years ago, Jeffrey Pfeffer (1993) laid out his concerns that organization studies did not consist of a harmonious whole, this involved a certain recognition of a pluralization of organization studies. He wasn’t happy about this state of affairs, of course, but on the level of description he shares much with Mike Reed’s (1992, 1999) description of a shift from an earlier state of ‘orthodox consensus’ towards a state of ‘pluralistic diversity’, that resulted from the unravelling of the hegemony of structural contingency theory and a concomitant destabilization of ‘organization studies’ from the late 1960s on. It is almost as if Pfeffer and Reed tell pretty much the same story, even if one is happy about it and the other is not. Because whether one felt that this was a space of a new freedom or a disastrous return to Babel, by the end of the 1990s it seems almost ‘agreed’ that there are a variety of paradigms or discourses on organization, and that organization studies is no longer the stable unity that it might have been in the past (see, for example Burrell, 1999; Deetz, 1996; Hassard and Kelemen, 2002; Kelemen and Hassard, 2003; Westwood and Clegg, 2003). If anything, the new consensus about organization studies seems to be that there is no consensus. In such a context, and presented with a request to comment on ‘the state of organization studies’ I found myself wondering if there was either something wrong with me or if the editors of Organization had suddenly taken a U-turn from the claims about heterodoxy and diversity with which they had launched the journal (Burrell et al., 1994). The state of
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones organization studies seemed to be one in which the very idea of an integrated organization studies had been called into doubt, yet the editors of the journal were asking me to talk about this fragmented and unstable object. Perhaps I have fallen into their trap and have come up with the pluralist description of organization studies that they were after all along. Or maybe this is just a roundabout way of saying that I’m not sure if the question ‘w(h)ither organization studies?’ is particularly meaningful. Rather than taking these difﬁculties as absolute limits, I propose to take them as a starting point from which to pose some questions about the apparent ‘crisis of grand narratives’ to which I have already been alluding. It is clear that concepts such as narrative, and various other concepts such as language games and discourse have had a signiﬁcant impact on organization studies in recent years (Astley and Zammuto, 1992; Boje, 2001; Grant et al., 1998). Indeed, I have already evoked a distinction between small narratives and grand narratives to describe the pluralization of organization studies. But in this article, rather than stopping with the story about the decline of grand narratives and the proliferation of small narratives, I will try to examine some of these concepts in a little more detail. To put it simply, this could be seen as a critical reading of the new grand narrative of the withering of grand narratives. I pose these questions about small and grand narratives by looking at the way that these concepts are introduced by Jean-François Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition and the way that they have made their way into organization studies. This will provide a launching pad for a discussion of the movement of concepts and the state of theory in organization studies and will suggest, perhaps, some things about organization studies ‘in general’.
Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition probably requires little by way of introduction. His ‘report on knowledge’ was commissioned by the Government of Quebec and published in French in 1979 and in English in 1984, and propelled him onto the international scene. When The Postmodern Condition appeared Lyotard was already a well established philosopher and activist, having published a surprisingly diverse number of books on phenomenology, politics and art, and an infamous critique of Marx and Freud (Lyotard, 1991a, 1993b, 1990a, 1993a). Afterwards he published works on language and injustice, time, Heidegger, Kant’s aesthetics, Augustine, and justice (Lyotard, 1988, 1991b, 1990b, 1994, 2000; Lyotard and Th´ baud, 1985) and a series of articles on various e aspects of the postmodern condition (Lyotard, 1992, 1997, 1999). The Postmodern Condition is a short book, and on the face of it appears to be simpler and more ‘sociological’ than much of Lyotard’s other work. But this should not lead us to think that it is a straightforward text or that we are entitled to read it in a straightforward way. Indeed, there are a
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? number of aspects of this text that suggest that it is far from easy. To begin with, there are numerous problems with the meaning of this word ‘postmodern’ which, as Neils Brugger (2001) has carefully documented, ¨ means quite different things throughout Lyotard’s various works. Further, Lyotard uses it in quite a different way from other thinkers, and hence in The Postmodern Condition the postmodern condition is not speciﬁed as an epoch, or an epistemology, a style of architecture, art or culture, or an organizational form. Rather, here the postmodern condition refers to an apparent ‘crisis of narratives’ that had emerged in the years before the book was published. Lyotard opens with this explanation:
The object of this study is the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies. I have decided to use the word postmodern to describe that condition. The word is in current use on the American continent among sociologists and critics; it designates the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end of the nineteenth century, have altered the game rules for science, literature, and the arts. The present study will place these transformations in the context of the crisis of narratives. (1984: xxiii)
The difﬁculties of Lyotard’s text are not restricted to movements of the meaning of ‘the postmodern’. In particular it is important to be careful about the way that the text shifts between descriptive and prescriptive statements, to the point that it is often very hard to tell if Lyotard is simply describing the postmodern condition or if he is commending or condemning it. Lyotard’s text oscillates between the ﬁrst and the second person, sometimes stating what ‘we’ think and sometimes what ‘he’ thinks. Such oscillations present a major difﬁculty, and if ignored might lead one to think that Lyotard simply endorses the postmodern condition that he describes. In order to address this problem, we should recall the stress that Lyotard puts on the difference of what ‘is’ from what ‘ought to be’ and with this the language games of denotation and prescription. In this Lyotard is very traditional: ‘that which ought to be cannot be concluded from that which is, the “ought” from the “is” . . . between statements that narrate and describe something and statements that prescribe something, there is always some talking to be done’ (in Lyotard and Th´ baud, 1985: 17). e In the light of the difﬁculties of the meaning of the postmodern and the slippage between description and prescription, it is unsurprising that The Postmodern Condition has been read in a number of quite different ways. In organization studies this has led some to be quite suspicious of the way that Lyotard’s book has been read. Catherine Casey, for example, suggests that ‘Little, if any of Lyotard’s work (other than secondary readings of The Postmodern Condition) has been directly inﬂuential in the ﬁeld of organization studies’ (2002: 124). While this is an important reminder about the partiality of readings of Lyotard in organization studies, Casey nevertheless fails to do justice to the large number of writers who have, both directly and indirectly, been inﬂuenced by
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones Lyotard’s work, several of whom I will discuss in this article. But moreover, Casey offers us little by way of an alternative to the state of affairs that she diagnoses, preferring to criticize rather than intervene in a way that would indicate a different direction. Rather than just criticizing the way that Lyotard has been received, my goal in this article will be to indicate something of what might be a ‘better’ path. An alternative critical strategy to Casey’s is suggested in the approach taken by Hugo Letiche. In a criticism that echoes Casey’s, Letiche argues that:
Neither attention to, nor much knowledge of, Lyotard’s philosophical thought has been evident in the postmodernism debate in organizational theory. A perusal of the literature reveals many citations of the Postmodern Condition, but a marked lack of references to the rest of Lyotard’s work. (Letiche, forthcoming)
As we will see, for Lyotard the goal of thought is not continuity or the resolution of thinking into a complacent consensus, but is grounded in a notion of inventiveness and difference. In the light of this, Letiche offers an alternative and inventive reading of Lyotard that challenges organization studies to rethink itself and its relation to The Postmodern Condition. In this article I will try to extend Letiche’s analysis, not by turning to the wider body of Lyotard’s work, as Letiche does, but by proposing to look again at The Postmodern Condition. Where Letiche proposes to look elsewhere in Lyotard’s work to ﬁnd an alternative reading of Lyotard, I will suggest that the basis for an alternative reading of Lyotard can be found in The Postmodern Condition.
The Postmodern Condition
Having established the object of his study as the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies and that this will be placed in the context of the crisis of narratives, the second paragraph of Lyotard’s introduction reads as follows:
Science has always been in conﬂict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them turned out to be fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game. It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth. (1984: xxiii)
Lyotard is not concerned simply with narratives, but with the way that narratives justify or legitimate themselves in order to take on the status of something more than mere stories. This concern with the legitimation of narratives signals a clear relation to Jurgen Habermas’s Legitimation ¨
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? Crisis, which appeared six years before The Postmodern Condition and is a major point of contention for Lyotard’s analysis of the crisis of narratives. The back cover of the English paperback of The Postmodern Condition simply states that ‘His book is about what Jurgen Habermas has ¨ called “legitimation”. How do we legitimate the criteria for sorting true statements from false?’ The centrality of this concern with legitimation is important because it draws attention to questions about the reading of The Postmodern Condition in organization studies. Strangely, organization studies has tended to pay very little attention to Lyotard’s concern with legitimation, which is odd given that organization studies emerged out of the shadow of Max Weber and that the legitimation of domination was one of Weber’s central concerns (see, for example, Weber, 1978, ch. 3). This reiterates the questions of the partiality of readings of The Postmodern Condition in organization studies that were raised by Casey and Letiche. Similar questions can be found by turning to Lyotard’s discussion of legitimation. He speciﬁes a science as modern if it legitimates itself through recourse to a ‘metadiscourse’ that appeals to a ‘grand narrative’. Lyotard is clear that there are a number of grand narratives that modern science has appealed to and in the opening page of The Postmodern Condition he lists ﬁve. Elsewhere we ﬁnd this list in a slightly different form. For example, in The Postmodern Explained to Children, he writes:
The thought and action of the 19th and 20th centuries are governed by an Idea (in the Kantian sense): the Idea of emancipation. It is of course framed in quite different ways, depending upon what we call the philosophies of history, the grand narratives which attempt to organize this mass of events: the Christian narrative of the redemption of original sin through love; the Aufklarer [Enlightenment] narrative of emancipation from ignorance and ¨ servitude through knowledge and egalitarianism; the speculative narrative of the realisation of the universal Idea through the dialectic of the concrete; the Marxist narrative of emancipation from exploitation and alienation through the socialisation of work; and the capitalist narrative of emancipation from poverty through industrial development. (Lyotard, 1992: 36)
With both of these lists Lyotard appears to be both pluralist and unitarist. That is to say, there are several grand narratives that have legitimated modern science but they all share a common kernel. They all legitimate knowledge in a similar, if not the same way. Still, although for Lyotard there is no single grand narrative that is more grand than any other, this pluralism seldom accompanies the Lyotard encountered in organization studies. For example, Clegg and Hardy (1999: 2) ﬁnd that Marxism is ‘the master narrative par excellence’ and Linstead (2001: 218) suggests that Lyotard’s ‘chief target’ is Hegel. Hassard claims that Lyotard rejects both ‘those reductionist narratives derived from Marx and Hegel’ (1993: 9). These readings assume that one (or two) of these grand narratives is more grand than the others. This probably says less about Lyotard than it does
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones about the preferences of writers in organization studies, and in doing so says something interesting about the state of theory in organization studies. A similar manipulation of Lyotard can also be found in the way that certain ostensible pluralists leave some of Lyotard’s grand narratives outside their ﬁeld of critical vision. For example, Stephen Cummings, apparently explaining Lyotard, provides examples of metanarratives which ‘include Marxism, Hegelianism, the model of scientiﬁc rationalism, Christianity, a Freudian emphasis on the dominance of the unconscious mind, or collective codes of behaviour’ (2000: 213). Despite the fact that Lyotard consistently identiﬁes the capitalist grand narrative, Cummings somehow manages to leave this one out of his list. This is strange, because although organization studies is largely concerned with productive organization in advanced capitalist economies, very often Lyotard is represented in such a way as it might appear that he has nothing to say about the grand narratives that have legitimated the accumulation of capital. This might prompt one to look a little closer at Lyotard’s position on grand narratives and the way that this has been represented in organization studies. It might be tempting, and many have used him for this purpose, to think that when he describes a shift, in recent years, which results in the delegitimation of grand narratives, that Lyotard thinks that this is a good thing. Famously, Lyotard remarks: ‘Simplifying to the extreme, I deﬁne postmodern as incredulity to metanarratives’ (1984: xxiv). But is this incredulity Lyotard’s or is it something in the world that he is describing? Here we face problems about the standpoint that Lyotard takes in his text. Although he deﬁnes the postmodern in terms of ‘incredulity to metanarratives’, it is not at all clear if this is a description of how metanarratives are treated in a society like ours or if he is arguing that we should be incredulous to metanarratives. This equivocation runs throughout his text, as Brugger (2001) notes. More often than not Lyotard ¨ refers to what ‘most people’ think, or something similar. So, for example he writes that ‘In contemporary society and culture . . . The grand narrative has lost its credibility’ (1984: 37) and that ‘Most people have lost their nostalgia for the lost narrative’ (1984: 41). Whether accurate or not, this is a description of a social fact. Whether Lyotard personally agrees with what he describes is a difﬁcult question. Here we could look further into questions of legitimation. It is important to note that Lyotard does not imagine that legitimation is no longer a problem in this postmodern condition. Far from it. Lyotard is under no illusion that questions of judgement would ever disappear. Indeed, this is the question that he presents to us: ‘Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?’ (1984: xxiv–xxv). In organization studies the answer to the question of where legitimacy can reside after metanarratives has often been very simple: all that we now have is a plurality of competing discourses, none of which has any priority over any other. On this reading, Lyotard is taken to represent an argument about the plurality of
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? language games. For example, for Cal´ s and Smircich ‘the end of metaa narratives emphasizes how the totalizing discourses of previous times, with promises of all-encompassing theories for each discipline . . . have given way to fragmentary illuminations and local understandings’ (1997: xviii–xix; see also Cal´ s and Smircich, 1999; Kilduff and Mehra, 1997). a This version of the postmodern condition reaches its peak in the hands of Hassard, according to whom:
Lyotard’s epistemology is a language-game approach in which knowledge is based on nothing more than a number of diverse discourses, each with its own rules and structures. In Lyotard’s view, each language-game is deﬁned by its own particular knowledge criteria. Importantly, no one discourse is privileged. The postmodern epistemology concerns knowledge of localized understandings and acceptance of a plurality of diverse language forms. Thus postmodernism sees the fragmentation of grand narratives and the discrediting of all meta-narratives. (1993: 9)
Interestingly, this ﬁts with the kinds of things that were being said in organization studies before the discovery of Lyotard. In particular it echoes Kuhn’s (1970) work on paradigms, or more accurately, the speciﬁc inﬂection that this was given by Burrell and Morgan in their Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis (1979). In this book, which argued against the hegemony of ‘functionalist’ organizational studies and for work coming from alternative positions (what they called ‘interpretive’, ‘radical humanist’ and ‘radical structuralist’ paradigms) there was a clear concern with totalization of organization studies around a single set of assumptions about science and society. In this context, and in the context of the debates about ‘paradigm incommensurability’ that ensued, Lyotard had a part to play. He was used to plug the gap in defences of pluralism by what amounted to the imposition of the force of law—this time in the way that he could act as legitimating force in the case for pluralism, and in the way that he was presented, it seemed that the forces of history were on the side of the pluralists. When Lyotard appeared on the scene, this great French philosopher who had written an important book on the state of knowledge in the postmodern condition, it appeared that any resistance to pluralism would be very quickly swept away by the pressure of French intellectual power and the irresistible sea-change that he predicted in which grand narratives were a thing of the past, and that this is a good thing too. The problem with this is that it ignores a major part of Lyotard’s argument, insofar as Lyotard does not dissolve legitimation into taste preference, and also because Lyotard does not unequivocally celebrate the delegitimation of grand narratives that he has described. In the postmodern condition, a set of new legitimation criteria present themselves for consideration, and it is these new criteria that are Lyotard’s concern. Brugger summarizes Lyotard’s argument in this way: ¨
[I]n this postmodern epoch three other possibly legitimating criteria appear within science: performativity, which governs de facto (the technical
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones
criteria, from which everything is administered in input/output matrices in which the elements in a process are claimed to be commensurable and in which the aim is to increase efﬁciency); consensus, which is achieved by open discussion, a criterion for which Habermas is made the spokesperson; and paralogy (disagreement, incommensurableness, innovativeness), which Lyotard himself wishes to promote. (2001: 79)
For Lyotard the question is not one of a contest between the grand narratives and these new criteria. The grand narratives are no longer convincing. The contest is therefore among these three new criteria. The critical aspect of The Postmodern Condition is that Lyotard is not at all happy with the choice that has been made, or how that choice has been made. To put it bluntly, in the postmodern age, the decision has been made by, and in favour of, capitalism and techno-science. His concern with this should be clear when he remarks dryly that the postmodern capitalist system ‘can count severity among its advantages’ (1984: 62). This system transforms all notions of rights and justice into questions of calculations of efﬁciency. In this world, ‘Rights do not ﬂow from hardship, but from the fact that the alleviation of hardship improves the system’s performance’ (1984: 63). Hence Lyotard’s description of ‘the system’ as ‘a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it, dehumanizing it in order to rehumanize it at a different level of normative capacity’ (1984: 63). In this actually existing dystopia, legitimacy becomes a cold question of efﬁciency.
The decision makers . . . attempt to manage the clouds of sociality according to input/output matrices, following a logic which implies that their elements are commensurable and that the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power. In matters of social justice and of scientiﬁc truth alike, the legitimation of that power is based on its optimizing the system’s performance–efﬁciency. The application of this criterion to all of our games necessarily entails a certain level of terror, whether soft or hard. (1984: xxiv)
Along with this, the suggestion that ‘The decision maker’s arrogance, which in principle has no equivalent in the sciences, consists in the exercise of terror’ (1984: 64) should make it clear that Lyotard is no fan of performativity. Having identiﬁed performativity as one of the bases of legitimation after the grand narratives, and the dominant base at present, Lyotard describes the rise of performativity. Doing so, Lyotard is keen to expose the relationships between knowledge and power and to see how these relationships are changing today. In a phrase reminiscent of Foucault, he writes ‘knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided?’ (Lyotard, 1984: 9). Lyotard identiﬁes a movement from the time of Descartes, who realized that scientiﬁc research requires ﬁnancial investment, to the modern age when it is now a commonplace that the management of scientiﬁc knowledge fuels ﬁnancial success. In the process we see the rise of an ‘equation between wealth, efﬁciency, and the
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? truth’ (1984: 45). Over the course of the past three centuries we therefore witness the rise of what Lyotard describes as a ‘generalized spirit of performativity’ (1984: 45), that reaches its peak in the most developed economies of today. In relation to the new bases of legitimation in consensus and paralogy, there is little contest. Performativity criteria are established in relation to both the production and the transmission of knowledge. These come together in the university, something of which Lyotard is highly critical. In this system, ‘The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer “Is it true?” but “What use is it?” ’ (1984: 51).
In the context of delegitimation, universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals—so many doctors, so many teachers in a given discipline, so many engineers, so many administrators, etc. The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulﬁlling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by its institutions. (1984: 48)
Against this generalized spirit of performativity, Lyotard poses a question or ‘metaquestion’ that condenses his objection to performativity. Here, importantly, he turns back to concepts of legitimacy. While performativity merely asks of knowledge ‘what is it worth?’, Lyotard turns the logic of performativity back onto itself and asks ‘What is your “what is it worth” worth?’ (1984: 54). For Lyotard, performativity involves a system logic that reduces questions of justice to questions of efﬁciency and has no interest in the unknown because it falls outside the system as currently constituted. Against this he ‘sketches the outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown’ (1984: 67). This involves turning away from performativity and towards the other possible legitimating criteria, consensus and paralogy. Lyotard argues that consensus, the criteria preferred by Habermas, is inadequate (1984: 60). It rests on a belief that it is possible to ﬁnd a metalanguage that could translate all of the ‘heteromorphous classes of utterance’ into one another, and the assumption that it is possible for all speakers in scientiﬁc games to agree about this meta-language and that consensus is the goal of science (1984: 65). Against this, Lyotard argues that ‘consensus is only a particular state of discussion, not its end. Its end, on the contrary is paralogy’ (1984: 65–6). Lyotard deﬁnes paralogy, at its most simple, as ‘the search for instabilities’ (1984: 53ff.). Paralogy is not a conﬁrmation of what is known, of cumulative additions to already existing knowledge. ‘It produces not the known, but the unknown’ (1984: 60). In this it is akin to what Foucault has called ‘problematisation’, in which the goal of criticism is not a new consensus but is one of ‘making facile gesture difﬁcult’ (1988: 155), and is
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1994) insistence that the point of philosophy, or one might simply say of ‘theory’, is that of creating concepts. This understanding of creativity of thought clearly owes something to Bachelard and Canguilhem, who conceived of science as innovation, instituting an ‘epistemological break’ from common understanding, but it also bears traces of a very classical demand of the difference of what is from what could be. For Lyotard the goal of thought is not one of merely stating what is, which is a denotative language game. It also involves a prescriptive language game, a game of ethics, justice and politics. Hence Lyotard’s conclusion, despite his suspicions about consensus, that ‘justice as a value is neither outmoded nor suspect’ (1984: 66).
Perhaps I have gone into too much detail discussing Lyotard’s book, even though this still does feel a rather rushed condensation of a somewhat detailed argument. I have gone into this detail not in order to ‘introduce’ Lyotard’s book (it is too late for that) but to show how it can be read in a way that departs from the reading that has dominated in organization studies. In particular I wanted to show that while it is possible to read Lyotard as simply another liberal pluralist, there is much more to his work. Besides these speciﬁc issues, I would like to use this reading of reception of The Postmodern Condition to open a broader discussion of the state of theory in organization studies. Although I do not want to suggest that The Postmodern Condition is indicative of trends in organization studies ‘in general’, I might use it as a starting point to offer some reﬂections on (1) the consumption of theory in organization studies; (2) the concepts in currency in organization studies today; and (3) the shifting divisions of organization studies.
In recent years several writers have emphasised the role of consumption of theory in organization studies. Notably, Hassard and Kelemen (2002) suggest a shift from an emphasis on the production of knowledge towards an emphasis on the consumption of knowledge in a process which, they suggest, involves the possibility of unpredictable uses of theory. Likewise, Gabriel stresses that ‘organizational theories are not used passively, in general, but in a creative, opportunistic and individualistic way’ (2002: 133). As Perry puts it, ‘Theory not only travels to unexpected destinations; it may also be put to unexpected uses’ (1995: 36). I have myself been interested in the way that theories have been consumed in organization studies, and in the unexpected uses to which various theorists have been put in organization studies. I have tried to work some of this out in relation to the consumption of Foucault and Derrida in organization studies (see Jones, 2002 and forthcoming). In this I certainly
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? concur with Bohm (2002: 336), who defends theory from Parker’s (2002) ¨ recent anti-theoretical gibes, and would argue, contra Parker, that it is not theory as such that is the problem but the way that theory has been practised and institutionalized in organization studies. In an important recent paper, Stephen Linstead (2002) presents ‘organizational kitsch’ as an aesthetic style that involves a kind of auto-parodic pretence, a self-conscious farce that is no less effective for being ridiculous. While the avant-garde ‘seeks new ways of expressing the inexpressible’, kitsch involves ‘new ways of expressing that which has been expressed so many times that it is instantly recognizable’ (p. 658). Hence, ‘kitsch is reassuring’ (p. 661) because it ‘involves the easy satisfaction of expectations [and] takes the disturbing and makes it comforting’ (p. 660). Linstead presents the garden gnome, a cheap object of mass production that captures this self-conscious farce and is also an unthreatening image of happiness—to laugh at a garden gnome would be churlish and unfriendly, so it is better to smirk knowingly. In organization theory, Linstead ﬁnds a perfect analogy in Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982), in which he identiﬁes a pattern of ‘easy avuncularity, intellectually undemanding presentations of theory in a digestible way— and the authors, though they don’t appear to realize it, are mounting a defence, not of applied theory, but of theoretical kitsch’ (Linstead, 2002: 674). Hence Linstead’s conclusion that ‘In Search of Excellence is the garden gnome of contemporary organization theory’ (2002: 674). If there is anything to add to Linstead’s discussion of organizational kitsch, then it is perhaps to widen the scope of its application. While the designation of ‘kitsch’ certainly sheds light on contemporary organization theory, I am not sure that this is restricted to ﬁgures such as Peters and Waterman. It seems to me that organizational kitsch is very much part and parcel of not just ‘the mainstream’ but also of much that presents itself as ‘critical’ and ‘postmodern’ organization studies, and we have seen this clearly in readings of The Postmodern Condition. When enlisted simply to make an argument for pluralism, one might wonder if Lyotard has not been effectively disarmed, in a way that makes him say old things in a reassuring way. The point, if a little simple, should be clear: in organization studies, In Search of Excellence is not the only garden gnome. This raises questions about the way that theory has been done in organization studies and the way that theory has been imported into organization studies. Hence the common complaint these days that theory in organization studies has been done ‘at a distance’. This happens through secondary readings, in which many of the theorists who have been imported into organization studies in recent years have made their way in through what appears to be little more than cartoon-book introductions. It is almost as if ‘theory’ is done somewhere safely outside organization studies, and the best we can do is to raid these other sources (badly, much of the time). Another way that theory is done at a distance
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones is through a particular set of expectations with regard to the citation of theory and theorists. Very often, ‘doing theory’ involves little more than listing citations in parentheses, regardless of the relation between what is said and the book that is mentioned. We have seen the consequences of reading Lyotard at a distance, and it says something rather sad about the state of theory in organization studies when this is not a marginal practice but is standard operating procedure in many of the ‘top’ journals. Against these tendencies, we might ask today whether it is possible to imagine a different place and status of theory in which organization studies was not merely a recipient of theory from afar, and if we might ﬁnd ways of doing theory that involved less distance from the sources discussed. I am under no illusion that changing these practices would be easy. But if theory is to be more than ‘armchair’ speculation (another name for bad theory that is often given to theory in general) then there needs to be not only a will but also the space to do this. Of course, a great deal militates against taking time for reading today, from the compression of PhD programmes to the pressures of teaching and administrative demands and the demand to ‘publish or perish’. I am writing this article under these very pressures, and feel them keenly myself. Interestingly, questions of time, of taking time and of making time are major concerns for Lyotard, and one of the problems he has with performativity is that it leaves no space for activities such as reading, thinking, reﬂecting—in short, ‘theory’—that require, and appear to waste, time. Lyotard stresses the need to resist these pressures, and invites us to respect the critical intellectual functions that are demanded by knowledge and justice. These have always been at risk and today face overwhelming threats. If nothing else then it might be this kind of memory of the critical function that demands a continuing interrogation of our current situation. This interrogation requires theoretical, and philosophical, activity that is not compromised by the demand for satisfying and reassuring answers, whether these are supplied by popular ideology or by critical orthodoxy.
This presents questions about the concepts that are in currency in organization studies today. Lyotard has been used as a reference point in discussions of a version of postmodernism that implies, among other things, paradigm pluralism. In the process many other things that Lyotard has to say about the contemporary organized world have fallen by the wayside. This is important not only because it does injustice to Lyotard’s thought, but because of the way that it is complicit with a more general denial in organization studies of a set of concepts that includes justice, judgement, ethics, politics and capitalism. By contrast with the situation in organization studies, in numerous discussions of Lyotard’s work the political and ethical dimension of his work are basic starting points (see
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? Bennington, 1988; Curtis, 2001; Raffel, 1992; Readings, 1991; Rojek and Turner, 1998; Silverman, 2002; Williams, 1998, 2000). For example, in one recent introduction to Lyotard’s work, Malpas writes:
Questions of politics, justice and freedom lie at the centre of Lyotard’s writing. Whether he is discussing a work of art, a literary text, theological arguments or even the end of the universe, his focus always falls upon the social and ethical issues that they evoke. Lyotard is primarily a political philosopher concerned with the ways in which our lives are organised and controlled by the societies we inhabit. (2003: 2)
To be generous, this lack of attention in organization studies to Lyotard’s concerns with ethics, justice and politics might be explained in terms of translation. For example, Au juste is translated as Just Gaming and Moralites postmodernes as Postmodern Fables, and in both cases the ´ ‘just’ and ‘morality’ seem to get translated out. But more than this there is a question of emphasis in relation to the reading of Lyotard in organization studies. Even with a title such as Just Gaming, the point is that it is the gaming rather than a concern for the just that has captured the attention. Elsewhere (Jones, 2003) I have drawn attention to the place of ethics, responsibility and justice in Derrida’s recent work, and the way that this has been largely ignored by those in organization studies who have expressed an interest in Derrida. Despite the continuing importance of ethics, justice and politics to Derrida and Lyotard, these are generally not the things that they been known for when they have been imported into organization studies. This is an act of ‘translation’ far more profound than is explicable in terms of differences of national language. It is indicative of the concepts that are currently in vogue in organization studies, and this is not restricted to being a problem of a hegemonic ‘mainstream’. It relates to questions of theoretical fashion and, perhaps, a hesitancy among even the most apparently radical in organization studies to even speak of things such as justice. A couple of years ago I addressed this concern to a number of well known scholars from across organization studies at a roundtable discussion at the EGOS conference in Lyon (see Boje et al., 2001), and to be quite honest I was rather disappointed by the unwillingness of these established ﬁgures to address these issues. Rather than take seriously the fact that many of the post-structural theorists who have been inﬂuential in recent years were both theoretically sophisticated and politically imaginative, most of these critical scholars of organization preferred to retrench into exactly the political quietism that I had tried to call into question. This says something about how theory has been done in recent years in organization studies. It might lead one to argue that organization studies ‘in general’ has a tendency for the kitsch, for using theorists in a way that is imitative of the past rather than radically different. Here again we might take from Lyotard a hope for difference, for the possibility of thinking differently. And this applies to the thinking that we do about the
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones world, but here clearly also applies to the way that I am reading Lyotard. Reading not simply to reproduce but to change. To offer alternatives. To make way for what might be.
If offering alternatives applies to reading of theory, then we might well begin with an alternative reading of Lyotard. Very often, Lyotard has been accommodated by slotting him in as a ‘postmodern’ theorist, a tendency that can be traced from Cooper and Burrell (1988) to Hancock and Tyler (2001), and beyond. Far too often, whether for purposes of conceptual simpliﬁcation or not, there has been a tendency to posit a sharp and clear division between the modern and the postmodern, and to position Lyotard on the side of the latter (for particularly telling cases of this see, for example, Power, 1990; Burrell, 1994; Chia, 1995). Perhaps today a new Lyotard could emerge from reconsidering the continuities between Lyotard and the tradition of critical thought. This might begin by connecting Lyotard’s concern with performativity in relation to the concerns over the instrumentalization of reason described by Max Weber and the betrayal of the Enlightenment criticized by members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, 1974; Adorno and Horkheimer, 1969; Horkheimer, 1947; Marcuse, 1964). Of course, much has been made of the differences between Lyotard and Jurgen Habermas, the heir apparent to the Frankfurt ¨ School. We might recall also the positive relation between Lyotard’s critique of performativity and the critique of instrumentality in Habermas’s Knowledge and Human Interests (1987) from which Lyotard borrows one possible formulation of the commodiﬁcation of knowledge in terms of the way that knowledge is no longer an end in itself and hence has lost its ‘use value’ (Lyotard, 1984: 5, and note 16). Drawing attention to these continuities between Lyotard and a Weberian or Frankfurt version of concern with instrumental rationality is not to say that there is nothing new in Lyotard’s critique. Indeed, Lyotard’s work, while not ‘historical’, is alert to the historicity of knowledge, and there are some clear developments and departures in the way that he articulates his critique of instrumental rationality. He is concerned with the possibilities for critique in an age in which many do not take anything seriously. He is not only concerned with conformity to totalizing ideologies, but further with the political consequences of the apparent non-conformism that characterizes contemporary liberal democracies. In this way there are productive continuities, not with ‘postmodernism’ but with the kind of critical account of the postmodern condition that can be found in Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical ˇ z Reason (1987) and Slavoj Ziˇ ek’s account of ‘post-ideological ideology’ (1989, 1994). The point of this is that describing Lyotard as postmodern brings with it at least two problems. First, it runs the risk of losing sight of the way that Lyotard is concerned with outlining a critique of the postmodern
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? condition. Second, it is in danger of denying the important continuities between Lyotard and modern critical thought, from the Greeks to Kant, Freud and Wittgenstein, phenomenology and Levinas, Weber and the Frankfurt School through to contemporary critical theory. In this all too popular labelling as ‘postmodernist’, Lyotard has certainly been made manageable, but the cost of this has been to lose much, if not most, of what he says that is interesting. This is again profoundly ironic, given that this is the very dynamic that Lyotard identiﬁes, and objects to, in so much of his writing. Perhaps the only way to try to do justice to Lyotard, to put this in the language of The Differend, would be to observe this wrong, to testify to these silences and to ﬁnd a way of linking phrases in such a way that Lyotard could be displaced. To put this more simply, it would be to say that for Lyotard the goal of critical thought is to introduce a difference, to open up a ﬁeld of agonistics. Agonistics is not a postmodern invention, which Lyotard clearly signals by attributing it to Heraclitus, the dialectic of the sophists and the early tragedians (1984: 84, n.35). It is, for Lyotard, little more than the task of thinking, and of criticism. This is perhaps what we need to do to, or for, Lyotard.
It might be tempting to conclude here, with this largely negative vision of the way that Lyotard has been read in organization studies and a largely negative vision of the state of theory in organization studies. But rather than concluding on this bitter note, I would like to spend a little more time in order to complicate the image that I have been painting. Against the suggestion that Lyotard has simply been consumed by organization studies, I might move towards a conclusion by speaking of some exceptions to the tendencies that I have been sketching out here. This might do more justice to the variety of ways that Lyotard has been worked with in organization studies and might also go some way towards a displacement of Lyotard, by showing that this displacement is already happening. Hence, in addition to the displacement that has already been performed by my ‘paralogical’ reading of the reception of The Postmodern Condition in organization studies, this is a gesture towards a further emphasis on paralogy, towards making Lyotard a little more contestable. Among the exceptions to the reading of Lyotard as pluralist, notable is the work of Pippa Carter and Norman Jackson, who have drawn on The Differend, Lyotard’s (1988) account of the role of language in ‘victimology’, to look at the role of language in silencing particular victims. Turning to The Differend, which Lyotard considered his most important book and is arguably his most philosophically profound work, Carter and Jackson work with Lyotard’s elaboration of an understanding of language that extends the conception of language games articulated in The Postmodern Condition. They draw on two of Lyotard’s examples of victims (the survivor of Auschwitz and the ﬁgure of labour in the relation
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones between labour and capital), to shed light on the linguistic closures and silencing that accompany the language of management gurus (Jackson and Carter, 1998: 156–7; see also, for example, Lyotard, 1988: 9–10). In ‘Negation and Impotence’ they take the concept of the differend to articulate a vision of linguistic contestation that goes well beyond the liberal pluralism that characterizes many readings of Lyotard and stresses the place of language in silencing and victimization (Carter and Jackson, 1996). Equally, Pelzer (2002) has drawn on The Differend in relation to the silencing of native Americans in history, in the ﬁlm Dead Man, and in organizational change management. All of these turn to aspects of Lyotard’s work that have been largely neglected in organization studies and use this to shed critical light on the politics of the language of organization. A similar recognition of Lyotard as a critical theorist can be found in other places in organization studies. In the ﬁrst of two ‘classic reviews’ of The Postmodern Condition published in Organization in 1997, Kallinikos (1997) uses Lyotard to outline a critical vision of the state of research and knowledge in the postmodern condition. In his ‘classic review’ Jacques (1997) takes The Postmodern Condition as a starting point from which to offer a scathing criticism of the limitations and restrictions that are imposed on thought by contemporary organization studies. Czarniawska (2001) similarly takes the idea of progress by paralogy from The Postmodern Condition to outline ten productive paradoxes for organization theory. And Linstead (1994) turns to The Inhuman (Lyotard, 1991b) to attack the protocols of social science and organization studies that hide the dangerous and unclean, what he calls the ‘underside of organization’ (Linstead, forthcoming). In addition to these uses of various works by Lyotard that display a tendency quite different from that of simply using The Postmodern Condition to defend paradigm pluralism, we might look at two further examples of writers who have used Lyotard in organization studies. Both of these are exemplary in that they do not only turn to Lyotard as conventionally understood, but transform accepted understandings of Lyotard and in doing so actively displace Lyotard. The ﬁrst of these is a paper by Rolland Munro (2001) that extracts from The Postmodern Condition a conception of communication and information. Drawing attention to the place of cybernetics in The Postmodern Condition, Munro uses Lyotard in order to understand the ‘language of information’ and the place of exteriorization and circulation of knowledge and the place of computer networks and language in such processes. In addition to recovering these aspects of The Postmodern Condition, Munro’s essay is exemplary in the way that it both uses and transforms Lyotard in the process, drawing attention to aspects of The Postmodern Condition that have not registered in organization studies. A second example of a displacement of Lyotard can be found in two important papers by Hugo Letiche (1992 and forthcoming). Reviewing
Organization 10(3) W(h)ither Organizational Studies? Lyotard’s work for organization studies, Letiche insists on a broader reading of Lyotard that goes beyond The Postmodern Condition and that sets this book in the context of his larger work. Letiche draws out Lyotard’s concern with justice, a theme that we worked with earlier in relation to questions of judgement and legitimation in The Postmodern Condition. Letiche stresses the political character of Lyotard and the way that ‘Lyotard has been occupied, throughout his career, with the theme of justice’ (Letiche, forthcoming). Letiche offers a powerful critique of the paradigm pluralism argued for by Schultz and Hatch (1996), arguing that ‘The cutting and pasting of genres (paradigms) that Schultz and Hatch are calling for goes against the whole thrust of Lyotard’s language philosophy’ (Letiche, forthcoming). Perhaps more important than these renewed emphases and critical interventions against the way that Lyotard has been read, Letiche actively transforms Lyotard and calls on others to engage more seriously with his ideas and their consequences, a responsibility that he lays at the feet of both Lyotard’s critics and his ostensible proponents. These displacements of Lyotard might disrupt the conclusions I ventured earlier about the simple consumption of theory in organization studies. This is the risk of paralogy. It is disconﬁrming and opens to contestability, agonistics. Paralogy and agonistics here expose the contested and contestable character of theory. Far from this putting us in a space of futility, this forces us to confront the difﬁculty of arguments and the continuous need for revision. This is to bring to light the role of repression and silencing, and the work of theory in continually undoing that repression. This is perhaps one thing we could learn from Lyotard today. In organization studies, and not only there, theory has often played the part of silencing, through the machinery of ignorance that is motivated by performativity and the complacency encouraged by a consensus that is happy enough to repeat what is acceptable in the community. I do not want to conclude with some kind of blanket advertisement for Lyotard. I have no hope that I might be able to pull back the curtain and ﬁnd a ﬁgure who has all of the answers that we need for the future. The future of theory for organization studies rests as little with Lyotard as it does with any other heroic ﬁgure. A criticism of Lyotard is as necessary as is his introduction, although neither of these was really my goal here. But if anything, an alternative conclusion would be that Lyotard, and many others that we think we might have ﬁnished with, are there for the taking by organization studies. This is to say that there are many spaces for theory, and much that theory needs to do. Returning to works such as those of Lyotard, and of many others, may still contain surprises. Rather than forgetting a book like The Postmodern Condition, perhaps today a more radical gesture would be to remember it, in the strong sense of remembering that also involves ‘dismemberment’ or a ‘displacement’. Perhaps this is the task of theory. Theory not as reﬂection or as explanation but as exploration of what might be possible. This is not a reﬂection
Theory after the Postmodern Condition Campbell Jones only on what is but is also a reﬂection on what might be. This involves a renewal of notions such as contestation, paralogy and agonistics, from Lyotard and beyond. Too often pluralism leads to a dull consensus or becomes an instrument for denial of the claims of others. By contrast, paralogy implies the refusal of such closure, and the perpetual opening of spaces of contestation. Which is to say that without the critical function of theory in the name of a forever open future, we have nothing but repetition, which for many is total silence. For Lyotard this means terror, and even if today this is the harsh reality of organized life, it does not mean that this is necessary. Nor does it mean that this is just.
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My thanks to Steffen Bohm, Peter Fleming, Shayne Grice, Andr´ Spicer and the ¨ e participants at seminars at the University of Leicester and the University of York for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.
Campbell Jones teaches critical theory and business ethics at the University of Leicester. He co-edits a journal called ephemera: critical dialogues on organization (www. ephemeraweb.org). Address: Management Centre, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE7 1RH, United Kingdom. [email: email@example.com]
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