Surrealpolitik: The Postmodern Condition

Author: Jean-Francois Lyotard

Manchester: Manchester University Press (1986, first published in 1979)

Quick Summary

One of the major primary sources on postmodernism. He begins with his definition of postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives and goes on to focus mostly on the idea of "language games", a notion borrowed from Wittgenstein. One way to summarize the book as a whole is to say that Lyotard seeks to expand on Wittgenstein in order to contest Habermas over the question of what constitutes legitimacy. Habermas describes a process of rational consensus; Lyotard promotes more of an idea of battle among narratives, each with its own separate framework for legitimacy -- thus the skepticism towards metanarratives, or grand narratives that claim to cover everything. One of Lyotard's main tasks is to de-privilege the language of science from its putatively contemptuous heights. He argues that there are different types of knowledge, i.e., denotative (cognitive) knowledge and prescriptive (practical) knowledge, and that each has its own terms of reference (discourse) and criteria for competency, beyond which its value is moot. Science, for example, apart from the influence of politics on what gets researched, exists in a kind of a vacuum until it is applied, at which point we leave denotative knowledge and enter prescriptive knowledge and a whole new set of competency criteria. His main point seems to be that truth-value is separate from justice and no amount of pure knowledge can guarantee justice as an outcome. In short, this book deconstructs knowledge and seeks to expose inevitable-seeming grand narratives as contingent results based on culture and values.


There are 14 quotes currently associated with this book.

Science has always been in conflict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them prove to be fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game...For example, the rule of consensus between the sender and addressee of a statement with truth-value is deemed acceptable if it is cast in terms of a possible unanimity between rational minds: this is the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works towards a good ethico-political end -- universal peace. As can be seen from this example, if a metanarrative implying a philosophy of history is used to legitimate knowledge, questions are raised concerning the validity of the institutions governing the social bond: these must be legitimated as well. Thus justice is consigned to the grand narrative in the same way as truth. Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives...Is legitimacy to be found in consensus obtained through discussion, as Jürgen Habermas thinks? Such consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games. And invention is always born of dissension. Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (page xxiii-xxv)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
[S]cientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knowledge; it has always existed in addition to, and in competition and conflict with, another kind of knowledge, which I will call narrative in the interests of simplicity. (page 7)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
Wittgenstein, taking up the study of language again from scratch, focuses his attention on the effects of different modes of discourse; he calls the various types of utterances he identifies along the way...language games. What he means by this term is that each of the various categories of utterance can be defined in terms of rules specifying their properties and the uses to which they can be put -- in exactly the same way as the game of chess is defined by a set of rules determining the properties of each of the pieces, in other words, the proper way to move them. (page 10)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
It is useful to make the following three observations about language games. The first is that their rules do not carry within themselves their own legitimation, but are the object of a contract, explicit or not, between players (which is not to say that the players invent the rules). The second is that if there are no rules, there is no game, that even an infinitesimal modification of one rule alters the nature of the game, that a"move" or utterance that does not satisfy the rules does not belong to the game they define. The third remark is suggested by what has just been said: every utterance should be thought of as a "move" in a game. This last observation brings us to the first principle underlying our method as a whole: to speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech acts fall within the domain of a general agonistics. (page 10)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality, Lead Quote Candidate]
[W]e can discern a common conception of the social [note: in 'traditional' social theory]: society is a unified totality, a "unicity." Parsons formulates this clearly: "The more essential condition of successful dynamic analysis is a continual and systematic reference of every problem to the state of the system as a whole...A process or set of conditions either 'contributes' to the maintenance (or development) of the system or it is 'dysfunctional' in that it detracts from the integration, effectiveness, etc., of the system." The "technocrats" also subscribe to this idea. Whence its credibility: it has the means to become a reality, and that is all the proof it needs. This is what Horkheimer called the "paranoia" of reason. (page 12)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
"Traditional" theory is always in danger of being incorporated into the programming of the social whole as a simple tool for the optimization of its performance; this is because its desire for a unitary and totalizing truth lends itself to the unitary and totalizing practice of the system's managers. "Critical" theory, based on a principle of dualism and wary of syntheses and reconciliations, should be in a position to avoid this fate. (page 12)
Tags: [The Left, Postmodernism, Rationality]
It is tempting to avoid the decision altogether [note: the choice between unitary/totalizing/functional science and oppositional/critical/dual interpretation/argument as the ultimate in knowledge and best single way forward for society] by distinguishing two kinds of knowledge. One, the positivist kind, would be directly applicable to technologies bearing on men and materials, and would lend itself to operating as an indispensable productive force within the system. The other -- the critical, reflexive, or hermeneutic kind -- by reflecting directly or indirectly on values or aims, would resist any such "recuperation."

I find this partition solution unacceptable. I suggest that the alternative it attempts to resolve, but only reproduces, is no longer relevant for the societies with which we are concerned and that the solution itself is still caught within a type of oppositional thinking that is out of step with the most vital modes of postmodern knowledge...For brevity's sake, suffice it to say that functions of regulation, and therefore of reproduction, are being and will be further withdrawn from administrators and entrusted to machines. Increasingly, the central question is becoming who will have access to the information these machines must have in storage to guarantee that the right decisions are made. (page 14)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
[A]n institution differs from a conversation in that it always requires supplementary constraints for statements to be declared admissible within its bounds. The constraints function to filter discursive potentials, interrupting possible connections in the communication networks: there are things that should not be said...However, this hypothesis about the institution is still too "unwieldy": its point of departure is an overly "reifying" view of what is institutionalized. We know today that the limits the institution imposes on potential language "moves" are never established, once and for all (even if they have been formally defined). Rather, the limits are themselves the stakes and provisional results of language strategies, within the institution and without...Reciprocally, it can be said that the boundaries only stabilize when they cease to be stakes in the game. (page 17)
Tags: [Revolution, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Culture, Rationality]
There is, then, an incommensurability between popular narrative pragmatics, which provides immediate legitimation, and the language game known to the West as the question of legitimacy -- or rather, legitimacy as a referent in the game of inquiry. Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture, they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do. (page 23)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Rationality, Media]
Scientific knowledge requires that one language game, denotation, be retained and all others excluded. A statement's truth-value is the criterion determining its acceptability...In this context, then, one is "learned" if one can produce a true statement about a referent, and one is a scientist if one can produce verifiable or falsifiable statements about referents accessible to the experts...Unlike narrative knowledge, [science] is no longer a direct and shared component of the [social] bond. But it is indirectly a component of it, because it develops into a profession and gives rise to institutions, and in modern societies language games consolidate themselves in the form of institutions run by qualified partners (the professional class). The relation between knowledge and society...becomes one of mutual exteriority. A new problem appears -- that of the relationship between the scientific institution and society. (page 25)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
The game of science thus implies a diachronic temporality, that is, a memory and a project. The current sender of a scientific statement is supposed to be acquainted with previous statements concerning its referent (bibliography) and only proposes a new statement on the subject if it differs from the previous ones. (page 26)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Rationality]
It is...impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa: the relevant criteria are different. All we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant or animal species. Lamenting the "loss of meaning" in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative. (page 26)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Rationality]
This way of inquiring into sociopolitical legitimacy combines with the new scientific attitude: the name of the hero is the people, the sign of legitimacy is the people's consensus, and their mode of creating norms is deliberation...It is clear that what is meant here by "the people" is entirely different from what is implied by traditional narrative knowledge, which, as we have seen, requires no instituting deliberation, no cumulative progression, no pretension to universality; these are the operators of scientific knowledge. It is therefore not at all surprising that the representatives of the new process of legitimation by "the people" should be at the same time actively involved in destroying the traditional knowledge of peoples, perceived from that point forward as minorities or potential separatist movements destined to spread obscurantism. (page 30)
Tags: [Postmodernism, Universality, Rationality]
It is one thing for an undertaking to be possible and another for it to be just. Knowledge is no longer the subject, but in the service of the subject: its only legitimacy (though it is formidable) is the fact that it allows morality to become reality. This introduces a relation of knowledge to society and the State which is in principle a relation of the means to the end. But scientists must cooperate only if they judge that the politics of the State, in other words the sum of its prescriptions, is just. If they feel that the civil society of which they are members is badly represented by the State, they may reject its prescriptions. This type of legitimation grants them the authority, as practical human beings, to refuse their scholarly support to a political power they judge to be unjust, in other words, not grounded in a real autonomy. They can even go so far as to use their expertise to demonstrate that such autonomy is not in fact realized in society and the State. This reintroduces the critical function of knowledge. But the fact remains that knowledge has no final legitimacy outside of serving the goals envisioned by the practical subject, the autonomous collectivity. (page 36)
Tags: [Activism, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, Rationality, Conspiracy]