The term postmodernism is applied loosely across a multitude of disciplines – architecture, arts, historiography, philosophy and theology – and is best understood as a theoretical point in which culture in general departed from the concepts of essentialism exemplified by modernism. Sensibly enough, the term ‘postmodernism’ quite literally means ‘after the modern,’ and as such is characterized by a decentralized sense of interconnectedness and inter-referentiality and conflicting and complementary notions of ambiguity and diversity.
The French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard best articulates, in a fashion that is surprising among the notoriously unreadable peers in the field of cultural theory, the historical and social conditions from which post-modernism began to achieve prominent currency.
In La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard (1979) argues that “the postmodern age” is marked by an incredulous attitude towards meta-narratives, frequently described by others as “the collapse of the grand narrative,” and in successive writings he persists in this opposition towards the universalist ideals of Enlightenment thinkers.
These ‘collapsed’ narratives are essentially large-scale theories or paradigms used to interpret the world around us, which are maintained hegemonically as ‘common wisdom. ’ Some examples of grand narratives are the interpretation of historical narratives as linear progress, the all-encompassing ability of science to ‘know’ and the ideal of ‘absolute’ freedom. Lyotard argues that in the postmodern age, belief in such narratives is waning in value for the reason that we have begun to realize how inadequate they are to apply to us all.
They did not, and could not, represent the diversity of human experience and it is this realization that defined culture in the tail end of the 20th century. In the wake of disillusionment with grand narratives, Lyotard argues that the age is characterized by a multitude of micronarratives. Lyotard draws upon Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ to denote the plurality of meaning in the postmodern age, how such meanings are produced and how their circulation is governed.
Leventhal (1995) remarks that by insisting on the legitimacy of micronarratives and the multiplicity and heterogeneity of language games, he essentially turns towards a splintered conception of knowledge in general. As such, Leventhal contends that Lyotard’s writings were reflective of a point in history in which culture was beginning to turn away from the ideas that helped give rise to Fascism: “Auschwitz and the Holocaust were … an important subtext.
The terror of the ‘one’ absolute hegemony of one form of speech was liked to [the Nazi ideal]. To deny … difference, to invoke absolute conditions of discourse, to institutionalize one specific way of thinking and talking is fascist …and creates the basis for a violent expulsion and destruction of the Other. ” (Leventhal, 1995) In Just Gaming, Lyotard (1985) continues to espouse and develop his postmodern theory of justice in the form of a conversation with Jean-Loup Thebaud. Although the concept of justice seems undermined in the face of the repudiation of universality and metanarratives, Lyotard (1985) insists that notions of justice and injustice remain.
Lyotard beholds ‘language games’ in an expressly political light, and argues that the only just way for any form of discourse in cultural theory to proceed is to not valorize one language game over the other, resulting in a “politics of terror” where other epistemological ways of thinking are shut out and thereby compromising diversity in ideas. (Shawver, 2007) As such, injustice occurs when the language rules of one ‘phrase regimen’ is applied to another.
Therefore, it is only ethical to give attention to things in their particularity and not enclose them arbitrarily with abstract conceptuality. By doing so, we remain vigilant to the threat of postmodern injustice. By doing so, we acknowledge the ‘differend,’ which is Lyotard’s term the point in which differences between two forms of thinking cannot be resolved because they are irreconcilable in the way they view things. (Lyotard, 1991) In effect, one experiences the differend when there is a lack of a rule of judgement which applies to both points of view.
It is not just a matter of disagreement, but a matter of the irreconcilability of the frameworks by which both arguments are formed. Acknowledging the differend means we do not valorize the rule of one discourse over the other. (Lyotard, 1991) In this light, we can observe that Lyotard was not attempting to suggest an anarchic state of thinking in which no narratives exist, but rather, was attempting to challenge the limits of conceptuality and narratives and the ways in which they are regarded by Enlightenment thinking.
His aforementioned concept of the differend, combined with his thoughts regarding the sublime, as conceptualized by Immanuel Kant, helped develop those themes. In Kant’s A Critique of Pure Judgment, Kant investigates the sublime. He defines it as “the mere abithe mere ability to think which shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense. " Kant notes that one experiences the sublime when one strives to comprehend beyond the imagination, which despite its range, is unable to represent.
Experiences of the sublime are instanced in witnessing large mountains, the Great Pyramid, or the vastness of space or oceans and therefore represent a greatness which cannot be contained by the imagination. (Kant, 1951) The failure of the imagination to contain these feelings results in pain, but soon transitions into pleasure, which Kant describes as a “feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them,” and one feels struck by awe and wonder.
The resultant feeling is that nature appears as a “mere nothing in comparison with the ideas of reason. ” This clash teaches us that the irreconcilability between reason and imagination are to be embraced, in spite of the anxiety that it produces because when human reason asserts itself. David (1998) observes: “What this does, ironically, is to compel our awareness of the supremacy of the human reason. Our sensibility is [temporarily] incapable of coping … but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation.
With the dynamically sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and … noumenal beings as well. The body may be dwarfed by its power but our reason need not be. ” Lyotard’s fascination with the sublime arises from how Kant has essentially articulate the inability of concepts to encapsulate objects, and when viewed alongside his argument in The Differend, this is an idea worth embracing.
Concepts’ cannot wholly encompass the particularity of things, but this is not an occasion for despair, but rather an occasion for us to recognize the nature by which concepts can be strained and broken by the object they are intended to define. (David, 1998) I believe that Lyotard’s philosophy and ideas are not just valid ones, but rather meritorious in the sense that he is critical of the very perceptual and cognitive framework which gives rise to essentialist definitions, baseless universalism and the hegemonic effects of ‘common wisdom.
In effect, Lyotard democratizes the notion of discourse by disavowing the unitarianist mode of thought which characterizes individual assumptions and beliefs about the world, and asking us to recognize not just the plurality of thought, but of experience as well. Make no mistake, this is not just epistemological deconstruction for the sake of it, and as is evidenced by his conception of postmodern justice, Lyotard does not seek for the abolition of narratives or of the anarchy of thought for the devaluation of meaning, but rather the critical appraisal of what meaning is.
What strikes me as most admirable about the ideas Lyotard has supplied and the similar strains of thought which follow is that they have value in a 21st century zeitgeist that is increasingly defined by individuals, organizations and medias which exercise the same kind of Enlightenment and/or modernist logic that he so declaims by declaring which values and morals are worth fighting for, which ideals are worth exercising and the peoples and cultures upon whom we should impose such ideals and values.
Additionally, Lyotard’s embrace of Kant’s sublime is also worth noting as it acknowledges the tenuous and abstract nature of attempting to relate the real world into discourse, acting as a kind of disclaimer for philosophy and cultural theory itself, not just those of the Enlightenment and modernist school, but his own theories as well. That, I think is a rather courageous way of philosophizing.