Jean-François Lyotard

A positive answer to the postmodern condition?

French philosopher and sociologist Lyotard (1924–1998) was a fierce critic of universalizing theories and “metanarratives” (narratives about narratives). In his book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), he proclaimed that we have outgrown our need for metanarratives or grand narratives. Metanarratives are grand totalizing theories and explanations about what reality is and why reality is the way it is. Hegel, Marx, and structuralists (and perhaps even Foucault) all offered metanarratives. They are also found more subtlety in widespread assumptions like the idea that science will provide us with all knowledge. Lyotard claimed that people have lost faith in these grand narratives and are forced to find new, smaller narratives to address social issues. His idea is similar to Nietzsche’s idea that “God is dead.” The old stories are no longer believed, and society is now fractured as people search for knowledge and meaning.

Metanarratives and the Differend

Lyotard, took the post in postmodern seriously. We are moving out of modernism. What we are moving into, Lyotard said, is the postmodern awareness that we are not all the same and that the grand narratives don’t describe most of us. We have become aware of our differences and are beginning to accept the reality of human diversity. The shift from modernity to postmodernity is a shift from metanarratives to micronarratives. To explain micronarratives, Lyotard uses Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games, though Lyotard prefers the term “phrase regimens” because “language game” implies that one can opt-out as a player, which is not possible. He uses phrase regimens to map society’s diversity. Human society is not the monoculture that is portrayed by the grand narratives. Society is a multiplicity of communities, and each community has its own phrase regimen of the meanings and rules it has developed.

Modernity’s grand narrative of human progress and human emancipation favors the wealthy and powerful but does not offer progress and emancipation to all communities. Those communities have to develop their own understandings — phrase regimens. Lyotard does not see diversity as negative in itself, but he acknowledges one negative side effect of different communities having different phrase regimens. He calls it the “differend,” a term he coined in his 1983 book, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. He defines the differend as

…the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be… the human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication, learn through the feeling of pain which accompanies silence. (The Differend, 13)

Language has traditionally been understood as words (signs) that refer to tangible things in reality (referents). Lyotard observes that in the postmodern age, we have come to realize that reality is not so cut and dried, and that reality is a complex set of senses attached to referents through signs. The correct sense of a phrase cannot by a simple direct reference to reality because it is the phrase regimen and its complex set of senses that creates “reality.”

Reality is defined and shaped by the dominant forces within a culture that create their own metanarratives. Through metanarratives, the dominant power structures create dominate modes of “reality.” The plurality of phrase regimens is real, and when one phrase regimen is used to silence another, that, Lyotard says, is what is unjust.

Lyotard’s prime example was Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, who took the logically contradictory position that the only person who can legitimately testify to the existence of gas chambers is somebody who actually died in one. Faurisson was using this fallacious reasoning to negate discussion of the injustice of the Holocaust. Another example Lyotard gave was a court case in which the judge does not allow one party to state its case. The concept of the differend extends into more general social circumstances of language use within popular culture when victims of injustice lack the language to express their victimization. Here, Lyotard lays some groundwork for the later concept of “epistemic injustice” — the silencing and exclusion of people to the extent that their own understandings are distorted.

The differend has clear political dimensions. One is when two communities who seem to be having a political impasse are having different phrase regimens within which they have different interpretations of situations. Their “realities” are different, and the differend between their languages makes communication difficult. Another differend occurs when the phrase regimen of the dominant power structure denies other communities the language to express the injustices they experience. These people thought they could use language to communicate their experiences, but their expressions are not valued equally by the dominant mode of “reality,” creating a differend. People who express their experiences of injustice are met with silence.

We can and should then understand that there are oppressive “realities” that define meanings within the dominant phrase regimen. A community in power can use the phrase regimen of a grand narrative to silence other communities. Colonialism is the perfect example, as are the many ways that the rich dictate meaning to the poor. In so doing, the community in power can silence discourse by using the ambiguity of meaning, thereby forcing its interpretation on others, denying diversity, and causing injustice. It is possible for people in different communities and phrase regimens to find links between their diverse rules and meanings, but this requires the willingness of all sides to do so. It is our obligation in the postmodern age, Lyotard says, to deny the phrase regimens of oppressive “realities” and accept and honor the many ways that communities are in the world and how they view and express themselves.

The Creative Event

But Lyotard’s version of postmodernism is neither nihilistic nor defeatist. His postmodernism is not an era that follows modernity but exists within the modern. In the midst of the dehumanizing inhumanism of contemporary society is another, transhumanizing inhumanism. What can bring us beyond the oppressive “realities” of metanarratives are the artistic, literary, and philosophical inventiveness of individuals. A youthful child, Lyotard says, is open to possibilities for the future, ever present in possibilities that the youth cannot yet speak within the phrase regimens of the present. There are events to come that cannot be preprogrammed, and our resistance to dominant modes of “reality” is to be prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think.

In avant-garde thinking and expression we can resist the social, economic, and technological forces that devalue our existence. Lyotard speaks of the painter, the musician, and the thinker who asks the question, “is it happening?” This cryptic question precedes events of creation in the face of the fear and misery that “nothing might happen.” That feeling of combined fear and pleasure is, for Lyotard, at the heart of all creation, and is the acts that gets us beyond the humanism of modernity.

Lyotard does not restrict artistic redemption to a select few as had Theodor Adorno. It is open to anyone who can stand against being assimilated and reduced by dominant narratives and instead creates new phrases and phrase regimens. The creative event is not reducible to a definition, and this is the meaning of postmodern art, Lyotard says. For him, postmodern art bears witness to the fact that those who claim the “reality” of metanarratives are merely trying to assert one phrase regimen over all others.

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