Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge

I honestly don’t know how often I had heard the term “postmodern” before 1996, but it was on a visit back to Indiana, after a year in Tennessee at Milligan College, that I remember first encountering it.  An old comrade from my drum-line days (we were both nineteen, but at that age, someone with whom one performed for four years is an old comrade) was talking about a course he had taken at Indiana University in Bloomington called “Readings in the Postmodern.”  I’m not sure what I thought of the term at the time, but when I asked him what they had actually read, I heard (among the other names that I would encounter later) William Gibson, whose novels I dug a great deal (and still do), so I figured it must not be that bad.

The next semester, fall 1996, I encountered postmodernism again, this time in the context of a philosophical ethics class.  Given the case that my professor Phil Kenneson made about what postmodernism was resisting, I didn’t figure it could be too bad, and in fact, in those days before I was aware of the scandal that would arise around the word in the years to follow, I remained fairly convinced that postmodernism was something that the Church would welcome with some sense of gratitude.

I was wrong, of course.  But that ain’t what I come here to talk about.  I come here to talk about Lyotard.

When I set to reading The Postmodern Condition from cover to cover recently (the essay is only about 70 pages long), the familiar emerged quickly.  Lyotard’s famous line, the one that most folks can quote or at least paraphrase, comes not in the essay proper but in the introduction.  What makes our moment (which is to say 1979) a postmodern moment is our “incredulity towards metanarratives” (xxiv).  Now when it comes to “metanarratives,” I’ve heard folks ascribe all sorts of meanings to the term,from the Bible to liberal politics to American nationalism, the only real common thread being “an idea that I don’t like very much.”  But Lyotard’s analysis of what happens when networked computers are part of the landscape (and they were, for university professors if not the larger population, in 1979), and more precisely what happens to institutions of learning in such a moment, is telling and, I’ll go ahead and say, prescient, given the shape of the university over the course of my own academic career.

Narrative, for Lyotard’s argument, is not merely something that has a beginning and a middle and an end but a specific kind of story, one that situates scientific practices.  Science does what it does quite well but always in the context of another story.  In other words, there’s no geological discovery that’s going to explain why we do geology: in order to answer that question of purpose, we tell stories about old origin myths, the nature of observation, the community of geological investigators–their advances and their missteps–and how the community called “Geology” imagines the immediate future of the discipline.  Lyotard makes sense of these parallel sorts of discourse in terms of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games.”  There is no single “geological” language; instead, the complex reality called “geology” consists at least of the specialized discourse resulting from geological practice AND the narratives that makes geology intelligible (10).

Metanarratives, then, are stories-that-make-stories-intelligible.  And in The Postmodern Condition, there are basically two sorts.  Lyotard doesn’t say that there couldn’t be more, but the only two that appear in the actual essay are the metanarrative of speculation and the metanarrative of emancipation.  The contours of the two should be familiar to those who know some 18th- and 19th-century philosophy: one metanarrative holds that we research, and have institutions dedicated to research, because the human species is the part of the world that thinks about the world, and we must organize in order to perform that role.  Thus the research university, though its pursuits are diverse, remains a true uni-versity: all the parts form one choir of human inquiry (33).  The other narrative shares some common ground but points in a more political dimension: the research institution provides the nation with knowledge, which is the key to the nation’s entering another phase of cultural evolution (32).  Again, in that model, the university, though it pursues history and philosophy and chemistry, all happens for the sake of national liberation, on an intellectual level, so all of it happens for one reason.  Both rely on practices of research-publication and of teaching-future-researchers to continue what they do (24), and both are successful insofar as experienced practitioners both produce new knowledge (for the sake of world progress or for national progress), and although either is subject to setbacks, both have devices internal to their structure to re-start the progress.

And that’s where the suspicion comes in.  Lyotard’s critique of the two great university metanarratives comes from close observation of how universities actually function.  Those who actually inhabit the university, Lyotard claims, are noting that the metanarratives’ claims of universality (either on a national or an international level) are, in 1979, wearing thin.  People are starting to realize that the great notions of pan-national emancipation and international intellectual progress are, in significant ways, simply the advancement of one faction of those populations against all others (34).  Such is not strictly a function of the computer age; Lyotard maintains that the contradictions inherent in the university are latent from the moment one claims universality for an intellectual approach (38).  But whether it’s anti-nationalist thinkers and writers calling into question whether the march of the monoculture is always good for all people whose old peculiarities are being erased (39) or folks noting the political oppression that so often goes along with progressive politics (40), the postmodern moment becomes a genuine cultural force when the very mechanisms of publication start to reward not consensus but what Lyotard calls paralogy, the continual disagreement with one’s predecessors that does not erase and replace what came before but stands in an ongoing tension with the same (50).

Lyotard is sure to note that such a demotion of consensus does not have to be a bad thing.  After all, the sheer volume of published research increases with this shift; there is no descent into a dark age of barbarism and the cessation of knowledge-production (41).  But, borrowing from Thomas Kuhn’s notion of “normal science” and “revolutionary science,” The Postmodern Condition insists that the new, post-modern notion of what counts as good research has internalized a sense that the next revolution is always around the corner, thus de-stabilizing the notion of an eternal “reason” and replacing it with a plurality of reasoning-processes (43).  Without a singular sense of what counts as reasoning, the resulting sense that there’s a singular metanarrative governing all inquiry gives way to a sense that reason itself, the rules by which one plays the game, are always up for grabs.  Thus there is no guarantee of “progress” precisely because what counts as “progress” is itself subject to questioning.

Such a shift presents dangers, though, that don’t suddenly pop into existence with the advent of DARPA-net but certainly become more pronounced in the second half of the twentieth century.  Scientific research (and Lyotard seems to use that term broadly, encompassing what folks in 2014 call “humanities” research along with physics and biology and such) becomes a terroristic system.  In other words, since there is no agreed-upon notion of “progress” to settle disputes about what counts as valid research and what does not, the decision-making process falls to those with the money to fund research, which in the post-modern moment often means military agencies, business corporations, and other entities which can threaten the very existence of this or that study simply by diverting funds away from this study and towards that one (63).  Since corporations and military agencies have little interest in transforming desires and elevating consciousness, but all sorts of interest in achieving their own desires-as-they-stand, in terms of their consciousness-as-it-is, the old narratives of progress give way, even among “progressive” politicians, to struggles between factions, decided entirely on the basis of who can muster more raw power.  Thus Lyotard’s essay, in 1979, calls on the philosophical community, to imagine ways in which paralogy, the dialectical model of knowledge that prizes difference over consensus, can go forward and to counter the terrorism of funding-power.

Now, thirty-five years later, my sense is that we’re still trying to figure that out.  What Lyotard saw as a coming wave is now the air we breathe: students don’t want to know “is this true” but “what’s this worth” (54) from the day they first hear the word “college,” and the anti-narrative of power, which leaves ends unexamined but holds in great esteem those bodies of knowledge that can give one the means to accomplish those unexamined means, governs the grand contest to draw college students.  When I read Lyotard writing about research, I can’t help but notice that his findings resonate with those of Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue–the philosophical grounds on which inquiry used to proceed are gone, and the challenge that lies ahead is to discover (or rediscover) good reasons to do what we do.  My own sense is that Christian colleges might have some resources to start that process of discovery (or rediscovery).  But that’ll be for another essay, another day.

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