Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition
The idea of Postmodernism is one that both fascinates and perplexes me. Throughout my time as an Arts student it has been a pervasive school of thought that has been discussed in everything, from Queer and Feminist Art theory to the identity politics of post-colonialism. However, I have always found it difficult to understand just what exactly it means. Much like its brooding but attractive half-Asian cousin ‘irony’, ‘postmodernism’ seemed to me like an intellectual phrase dropped frivolously by horn-rim spectacled, cardigan-clad hipsters with a propensity for stupid asymmetrical haircuts and listening to the Smiths on shoddy ‘vintage’ cassettes. Being a Fine Art/ Arts student, I’m the first to admit a) my love for cardigans and the morose and melodic self-deprecation of the Smiths, and b) my liberal use of the terms ‘ironic’ and ‘post-modern’, but enough was enough. I felt like the term ‘post-modern’ had been used and abused to the point of meaninglessness. Did anyone even know what postmodernism meant? Did it even have a meaning, or was it just beseeched by intellectuals who wanted to legitimate vapid contemporary art installations involving copious nudity, stale baked beans and a pink plastic poodle named Petinka? Why was it such a powerful force within the intellectual community of the late 20th Century? I needed to get to the bottom of ‘post-modern’, to understand its implications culturally, socially and morally. I needed answers. Which is where Jean-Francois Lyotard’s ‘the Postmodern Condition’ (1978) comes in. Does Lyotard’s work help to fully allay my bemusement of the postmodern project? In short, no. But ‘The Postmodern Condition’ does help to illuminate some important characteristics of postmodernism.
The ‘Postmodern Condition’ was commissioned by the Conseil des Universités of the Quebec government as a way of understanding the nature of knowledge in the late 20th Century. Fancy that! Imagine if the Gillard Government commissioned Alain de Botton to conduct a report on happiness in Australian households. In order to understand postmodernism, it is important to first understand the essential traits of the Modernist Project. For Lyotard, the term ‘modern’ is used to ‘designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse… making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative. (PMC 1) The metanarratives presented by Modernism, central to the thought of Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, were total philosophies of history and human nature. The Modernist Project adopted metanarratives to legitimise knowledge and truth for all humanity, and thus create social and political principles on which all of society should be grounded upon. Central to these accounts was reason – that humans were capable of creating their own values and traditions through the process of self-reflection and self-determination. Modernity privileged reason and self-determination as the core animating principles of understanding human nature and truth. Whilst acknowledging the constant flux of society, the Modernist centrality of reason meant that underlying this change was a single, unitary logic that applied to all people.
Lyotard thus defines postmodernism as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, with the ‘narrative function losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its elements’ (PMC, 2). It is a rejection of the metanarratives of Modernism that insribe reason as the unitary principle by which human reason and understanding is founded. The tragedies of the Holocaust and Stalinist Russia, coupled with the emergence of anti-assimilationist ideologies through postcolonial movements in African and Asia, really shook the foundations of the Modernist Project, revealing it is an imperfect model open to gross perversion. Many philosophers writing in the latter half of the 20th Century saw the apogee of self-direction and reason as a path leading not to a global Utopia but to the brutal dehumanisation of Auschwitz and the gulag, and the suppression of indigenous populations in European colonies. Marxism, in particular, demonstrates how a metanarrative based on principles on egalitarianism and emancipation can be corrupted in its implementation, resulting in totalitarian Stalinist Russia. I’m not too sure if Lyotard had the aphorism in mind, but I can see shades of Lord Acton’s ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ within Lyotard’s grim diagnosis of metanarratives.
Acknowledging that we can no longer solely rely on the singular logic of Modernism and its metanarratives, Lyotard posits that we cannot simply replace one metarrative with another either. Rather, postmodernism is defined by its embracing of pluralities, of difference. As Lyotard states in the Human Condition,postmodern thought ‘refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.’ (PMC 75)This suggests that our understanding of human identity and knowledge is described not under a singular grand narrative, but rather a multiplicity of narratives and discourses. Given the expanding nature of globalisation in the 20th and 21st Century, the respect of difference is highly relevant in attempting to account for coexistence between (sometimes highly different) cultures. One could easily see how postmodernism goes hand in hand with the emergence of the queer, Feminist and postcolonial movements – groups associated with being the ‘Other’. By decentralising the metanarrative of the white heterosexual male, postmodernism heightens the legitimacy and recognition of the ‘Other’ to the extent that they become forms of ‘Self’ (which is different from the logic of the ‘Same’). The 1990s debate regarding ‘Asian values’ and its tensions with liberal democracy is an interesting case in that it raises issues about how we can moderate cultural and narrative diversity without privileging one over the other, as this seems to me to be inevitable. In this regard, one of my
The Human Condition accounts for the plurality of narratives more specifically as competing little narratives - language games. Adopting the philosophy of Wittgenstein, Lyotard suggests that we can understand and legitimise knowledge through examining how sub-groups in society use rules of linguistic conduct to regulate behaviour and understanding. In contrast to the absolute philosophical narratives of Modernity, which prescribed how we should act in all aspects of life, postmodernism postulates that there are many diverse smaller contexts that we can act within. Lyotard is also aware of the agonistic, contestative model of the postmodern condition of plurality. As he states in the Postmodern Condition, ‘language species, like living species, are interrelated, and their relations are far from harmonious’ (PMC 80). I can see elements of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the public sphere (from the Human Condition) in Lyotard’s postmodern world, as both models highlight the significance of plurality. Implicit in this plurality, for both Arendt and Lyotard, is a gathering of individuals who are equal yet different, and derive meaning and knowledge from the contestation of diverse ideas.
One of the things that I thought was missing in my exploration of postmodernism through Lyotard was a sense of its inherent playfulness. Where was the humour of Yasumasa Morimura? The what-the-fuck-ness of the Pompidou Centre in Paris? I suppose postmodernism’s rebuking of grand narratives and essential structures connotes a deep disregard with standards and conventions, seeking to find alternative experiences to the Modern condition – which was evident in Lyotard’s piece. Inherent in this disregard is a reaction against the strict, straight-faced attitudes to Modern cultural institutions using irony, cynicism and humour. The sanctity that postmodernism rallies against is the cultural privilege of High Western Culture at the expense of ‘Other’ cultural narratives, and the narrow vision of excellence that it perpetuated. The playfulness of many postmodernist artists such as the aforementioned Morimura, or Feminist artist Cindy Sherman thus have serious cultural implications. While it is hilarious to see a nude male Asian man replace the white female nude in Monet’s Olympia, what is inherent in Morimura’s method of cultural appropriation is a revision of Western history – in which the Asian ‘Other’ is seen as equally important within the canon of art history. In this respect, humour has been employed as a way of revealing the plurality of narratives in society, as central to Lyotard’s vision of the postmodern condition.
There were a few elements of the postmodern that I found rather interesting. Firstly, postmodernism, according to Lyotard, is not an alternative to the model of Modernity, and should not be seen as thus: in any case, there is question here of proposing a ‘pure’ alternative to the system: we all know that an attempt at an alternative of that kind would end up resembling the system it was meant to replace.’ (PMC 89) While a reaction against Modernity and its emphasis on reason, the real alternative arises through the plethora of narratives that come in the rise of the truly pluralist society. Another sticking point of postmodernism that was interesting, but difficult to grasp, was how we account for narratives that become more dominant within the overlapping of language games. As evidenced in through this excerpt, it doesn’t seem like Lyotard offers any concrete solutions: ‘All we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant and animal species.’ (PMC 80) I’m not entirely convinced that postmodernism can completely escape the development of its own metanarratives in trying to explain the privileging of some narratives over others in contemporary society. Is postmodernism’s self-awareness and use of irony enough to admit its inability to fully escape the Modernist tradition, without the need to completely defeat itself and develop its own metanarratives.