Reading Analysis #1
In his work The Postmodern Condition: A discourse on Knowledge, Lyotard “…suggests posing paradoxes, paralogies, or pointing to aporia within hegemonic discourse in any given field in which one operates…in order to disturb trouble and undermine them.” (Best and Kellner p. 162) In this paper I will endeavor to apply this procedure to Lyotard’s own work without the limited intention of undermining it; rather with the express goal of gaining further insight into the nature of his language game.
A key issue in Lyotard’s work is the question of universality and meta-narratives; the main thrust of his philosophy is directed toward an analytic critique of meta-discourses driven by an amorphous notion of political justice. In his analysis he deconstructs and criticizes the scientific meta-narratives of modernity describing them as both totalitarian and terrorist. He concludes this critique by advocating his notion of postmodernism which he defines as “…increduility toward metanarratives…” (Lyotard xxiv). His proposed epistemological and political model celebrates local and diverse forms of knowledge, esteeming dissension over consensus, and diversity over totality. In essence, he is eschewing meta-narratives and favoring what he calls ‘critical knowledge’ over ‘functional knowledge’. The question raised in this current analysis is whether or not Lyotard’s proposed system of epistemic justice is simply a special meta-narrative making its own universal claims about narrative language games.
Lyotard begins by identifying his use of the “...term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with...an appeal to some grand narrative...”(Lyotard p. xxii) He points out that science has been at odds with narratives, often proving them to be fables with it’s own yardstick. Ironically however, science also depends on a narrative to justify its own program. He writes: “It [science] then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy.” (Lyotard p. xxii) He identifies such discourse as a meta-narrative which claims denotative and prescriptive truth-value concerning all other narratives. The values of technical efficiency are expressed in narrative form in order to justify modern science as a meta-narrative; however, such values are themselves taken for granted and not proven. He exposes this bankruptcy when he writes: “How can one guarantee that performance maximization is the best goal for the social system in every case?” (Lyotard p. 16)
Modern discourse also relies on consensus, unity, and otherwise totalitarian thinking in order to achieve its agenda of technical efficiency. The idea here is that everything must be agreed upon and intelligible to the scientific narrative, and thus efficient. This however, leads to injustice: “...consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games...[And] The application of this criterion to all of our games necessarily entails a certain level of terror, whether soft or hard: be operational...or disappear.” (Lyotard p.xxv) Thus the lens of postmodernism allows a choice “...between the homogeneity and the intrinsic duality of the social, between functional and critical knowledge.” (Lyotard p. 13)
Lyotard responds to these dark observations by advocating a form of knowledge that is informed by a sense of justice that is independent from consensus. Such a form of justice would involve the recognition and acceptance of the heterogeneity of language games (narratives) and the renunciation of terror. This epistemology forbids meta-narrative claims in so far as it disallows universal and permanent consensus.
In this context the dissention and incredulity of postmodernism toward meta-narratives performs an operative function by disallowing meta-narratives and ideological terrorism and henceforth enforcing Lyotard’s meta-prescriptive of justice. In this sense his concept of postmodernism is both operational and critical in so far as it is an instrumental means toward the end of justice. Lyotard writes: “What is important in a text is not what it means, but what it does and incites to do.” (Best and Kellner p. 147) Therefore, it seems that the critical knowledge of postmodernism is also operational; it differs from modernism only insofar as its end is concerned with justice, while the operation of modern narrative is concerned with the end of technical efficiency.
His use of the term justice suggests a possible foundation upon which to make universal utterances concerning language games. This can be observed in the following statement: “Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value. But justice as a value is neither outmoded nor suspect. We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus” (Lyotard p. 66) At first glance this statement appears to be a call for a new meta-narrative which eschews totality and consensus as opposed to a philosophy that is totally against meta-narratives. I base this observation on his use of justice in order to prescribe what narratives can and cannot do.
This trend becomes apparent in his following prescriptions of justice: “A recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games is a first step in that direction. This obviously implies a renunciation of terror...The second step is the principle that any consensus on the rules defining the game and the moves playable within it must be local [and temporary]...” (Lyotard p. 66) It seems here that despite his ‘increduility toward metanarratives’ Layotard is unable to escape the ‘meta-narrative box’. His description of justice falls under his definition of a meta-narrative by its prescriptive claims concerning all narratives; his form of justice takes on a foundational appearance. A skeptic could then ask the forbidden question: ‘Could his postmodernism become terrorist? Could it entail a terrorist mandate: be operational for justice or disappear?’
This question is important; however if Lyotard is truly advocating dissension over consensus then his ideal of justice could never reach a totalitarian position since it would always be one of many dissenting meta-arguments within an ongoing language game. Lyotard hints at the paradox and inevitable ‘meta’ implications entailed by any narrative discourse with the following: “The orientation then favors a multiplicity of finite meta-arguments, by which I mean argumentation that concerns metaprescriptives and is limited in space and time.”(Lyotard p. 66) This implies that justice involves a series of finite language games making meta-arguments and meta-prescriptives; what keeps them from becoming a totalitarian meta-narrative is their awareness of their own finitude and partiality within the language game dynamic. If this applies to Lyotard’s own utterances then his own meta-narrative tendencies are seen as one of many moves in the human language game, thus mitigating its own terrorist potential.
So far we have observed a potentially problematic paradox within Lyotard’s work. His prescriptive statements are not local in appearance, and they carry universal import by making general claims about narratives. This is similar to the meta-narrative of modern science which also makes generalizations concerning narratives. Nonetheless, it can also be argued that while Lyotard’s narrative expresses universal and prescriptive tendencies, his own position can be differentiated from modern meta-narratives by its potential awareness of its own partiality, making it one of many moves in a larger language game.
One could also conclude that if Lyotard’s discourse on postmodernism is just a move in a language game, his concept of postmodernism takes only the form of a meta-narrative concerned with freedom of expression and the development of new narrative discourse. Within this interpretive framework, it appears that his postmodernism differs from modernity more by the nature of the universal claims involved as opposed to the presence or absence of any universal claims at all. Hence, Lyotard’s postmodernism makes similar universal statements as in modernism; however his postmodernism differs by its partiality and affirmation of dissension, paradox, and plurality, while the universal claims of modernity affirm consensus, unity, and totality.
Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, “Lyotard and Postmodern Gaming” in Posmodern Theory: Critical Investigations. (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 146-171
Layotard, Jean Fancoise. “Introduction”, “The Postmodern Condition”. The Postmodern Condition a Discourse on Knowledge. Laurence Cahoon ed., From Modernism to Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. xxiii-67