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Contemporary Art
Contents:


  1. Postmodern art
  2. Contemporary Art Movements (present)
  3. Modern Photography - History and Concepts
  4. Full text issues

There are those who argue against any division into modern and postmodern periods. There is, however, a consensus that a profound change in the perception of works of art, and works of art themselves, has occurred and that a new era has been emerging on the world stage since at least the s. Late modernism describes movements which arose from and react against trends in modernism, rejecting some aspect of modernism, while fully developing the conceptual potentiality of the modernist enterprise. In some descriptions post-modernism as a period in art history is completed, whereas in others it is a continuing movement in Contemporary art.

This last point is one of particular controversy in art, where many institutions argue that being visionary, forward-looking, cutting edge, and progressive are crucial to the mission of art in the present, and that postmodern art therefore represents a contradiction of the value of art of our times. Postmodern art comes from the viewpoint that all stances are unstable and insincere, and therefore irony, parody, and humor are the only positions which cannot be overturned by critique or later events.

Postwar European artists, unlike American abstract expressionists, grappled with the isolated experience of the individual figure. In the Postwar period, the center of modern artistic activity in the west shifted from Paris to New York. One of the biggest contributing factors to this shift was the advent of abstract expressionism, a decidedly American movement often cited as the first American avant-garde. Visionary figures like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman epitomized abstract expressionism in New York, but a similar concern for expressionism was present in the work of many important European artists in the aftermath of World War II.

While both American and European artists were influenced by the postwar rhetoric of anxiety, alienation, and disillusionment, the American school was also heavily influenced by Surrealism and moved increasingly toward reductive abstraction and away from representing biomorphic forms as a means for pursuing the self-expression of the unconscious. Unlike American Expressionism, which was more abstract, many European painters maintained the primacy of the figure in their work.

More concerned with the philosophical and cultural movement of Existentialism, European artists grappled with the meaning of the figure and its isolated, individual experience of the world. Existentialist themes often framed the work of figurative artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Alberto Giacometti.


  1. Most Important Art;
  2. Jean-François Lyotard (1924—1998).
  3. The World Since CE | Boundless Art History.
  4. Where? When? How?.
  5. Avant Garde - Challenging the idea of art;

Bacon and Freud were British painters who painted expressive portraits noted for their psychological penetration. Giacometti was a Swiss painter and sculptor mostly known for his sculptures of isolated, attenuated figures. These figures were thought to reflect the postwar view that life was void of meaning. Art Gallery of New South Wales. During this period, European artists engaged more fully in abstraction, particularly those associated with the French painting movements Tachisme from the French word tache , meaning stain and Art Informel.

Tachisme is often regarded as the closest European equivalent to American abstract expressionism, and can be characterized by spontaneous brushwork, drips and blobs of paint applied directly from a tube, and, occasionally, scribbling reminiscent of calligraphy. Art Informel, a movement closely related to Tachisme, rejected the geometric, hard-edge style of American abstraction in favor of a more intuitive form of expression. Skip to main content.

Global Art Since CE. Lyotard makes three particularly important observations about language games. Secondly, if there are no rules there is no game and even a small change in the rules changes the game. Thirdly, every utterance should be thought of as a "move" in a game. Different types of utterances, as identified by Wittgenstein, pertain to different types of language games.

Lyotard gives us a few examples of types of utterances. The "denotative" is an utterance which attempts to correctly identify the object or referent to which it refers such as "Snow is white". For both Wittgenstein and Lyotard, language games are incommensurable, and moves in one language game cannot be translated into moves in another language game.

For example, we cannot judge what ought to be the case a prescriptive from what is the case a denotative. Lyotard's choice of language games is primarily political in motivation, and relates to the close links between knowledge and power. In examining the status of knowledge in postmodernity, Lyotard is examining the political as well as epistemological aspects of knowledge legitimation , and he sees the basic social bond - the minimum relation required for society to exist - as moves within language games.

Lyotard needs a methodological representation to apply to society in order to examine the status of knowledge in postmodern societies. Lyotard rejects both of these alternatives on the grounds that the choice seems difficult or arbitrary, and also rejects a third alternative - that we might distinguish two kinds of equally legitimate knowledge, one based on the view of society as unitary and the other on the view of society as binary.

This division of knowledge is caught within a type of oppositional thinking that Lyotard believes is out of step with postmodern modes of knowledge. Instead of the recently popular or "modern" models of society, Lyotard argues that even as the status of knowledge has changed in postmodernity, so has the nature of the social bond, particularly as it is evident in society's institutions of knowledge. Lyotard presents a postmodern methodological representation of society as composed of multifarious and fragmented language games, but games which strictly but not rigidly - the rules of a game can change control the moves which can be made within them by reference to narratives of legitimation which are deemed appropriate by their respective institutions.

Thus one follows orders in the army, prays in church, questions in philosophy, etc. Narrative knowledge has no recourse to legitimation - its legitimation is immediate within the narrative itself, in the "timelessness" of the narrative as an enduring tradition - it is told by people who once heard it to listeners who will one day tell it themselves. There is no question of questioning it. Indeed, Lyotard suggests that there is an incommensurability between the question of legitimation itself and the authority of narrative knowledge.

In scientific knowledge, however, the question of legitimation always arises. Lyotard says that one of the most striking features of scientific knowledge is that it includes only denotative statements, to the exclusion of all other kinds narrative knowledge includes other kinds of statements, such as prescriptives. According to the "narrative" of science, however, only knowledge which is legitimated is legitimate - i.

Scientific knowledge is legitimated by certain scientific criteria - the repeatability of experiments, etc. If the entire project of science needs a metalegitimation, however and the criteria for scientific knowledge would itself seem to demand that it does then science has no recourse but to narrative knowledge which according to scientific criteria is no knowledge at all.

This narrative has usually taken the form of a heroic epic of some kind, with the scientist as a "hero of knowledge" who discovers scientific truths. The distinction between narrative and scientific knowledge is a crucial point in Lyotard's theory of postmodernism, and one of the defining features of postmodernity, on his account, is the dominance of scientific knowledge over narrative knowledge. The pragmatics of scientific knowledge do not allow the recognition of narrative knowledge as legitimate, since it is not restricted to denotative statements.

Lyotard sees a danger in this dominance, since it follows from his view that reality cannot be captured within one genre of discourse or representation of events that science will miss aspects of events which narrative knowledge will capture.

Postmodern art

In other words, Lyotard does not believe that science has any justification in claiming to be a more legitimate form of knowledge than narrative. Part of his work in The Postmodern Condition can be read as a defence of narrative knowledge from the increasing dominance of scientific knowledge. Furthermore, Lyotard sees a danger to the future of academic research which stems from the way scientific knowledge has come to be legitimated in postmodernity as opposed to the way it was legitimated in modernity.

In modernity the narrative of science was legitimated by one of a number of metanarratives, the two principal ones being respectively Hegelian and Marxist in nature. The Hegelian metanarrative speculates on the eventual totality and unity of all knowledge; scientific advancement is legitimated by the story that it will one day lead us to that goal.

The Marxist metanarrative gives science a role in the emancipation of humanity. According to Lyotard, postmodernity is characterised by the end of metanarratives. So what legitimates science now?

Contemporary Art Movements (present)

Lyotard's answer is - performativity. The technical and technological changes over the last few decades - as well as the development of capitalism - have caused the production of knowledge to become increasingly influenced by a technological model. It was during the industrial revolution, Lyotard suggests, that knowledge entered into the economic equation and became a force for production, but it is in postmodernity that knowledge is becoming the central force for production.

Lyotard believes that knowledge is becoming so important an economic factor, in fact, that he suggests that one day wars will be waged over the control of information. Lyotard calls the change that has taken place in the status of knowledge due to the rise of the performativity criterion the mercantilization of knowledge. In postmodernity, knowledge has become primarily a saleable commodity. Knowledge is produced in order to be sold, and is consumed in order to fuel a new production. According to Lyotard knowledge in postmodernity has largely lost its truth-value, or rather, the production of knowledge is no longer an aspiration to produce truth.

Today students no longer ask if something is true, but what use it is to them. Lyotard believes that computerization and the legitimation of knowledge by the performativity criterion is doing away with the idea that the absorption of knowledge is inseparable from the training of minds. In the near future, he predicts, education will no longer be given "en bloc" to people in their youth as a preparation for life. Rather, it will be an ongoing process of learning updated technical information that will be essential for their functioning in their respective professions. Lyotard does not believe that the innovations he predicts in postmodern education will necessarily have a detrimental effect on erudition.

He does, however, see a problem with the legitimation of knowledge by performativity. This problem lies in the area of research. Legitimation by performativity lends itself to what Lyotard calls "terror" - the exclusion of players from language games or the exclusion of certain games entirely. Most true "discoveries," Lyotard argues, are discoveries by virtue of the fact that they are so radical that they change the rules of the game - they cannot even be articulated within the rules of the "dominant" game which is dominant because it draws the consensus of opinions.

Many discoveries are not found to have a use until quite some time after they are made; therefore they seem to be of little value by the performativity criterion. Lyotard argues that legitimation by performativity is against the interests of research. He does not claim that research should be aimed at production of "the truth"; he does not try to re-invoke the metanarratives of modernity to legitimate research. Rather, he sees the role of research as the production of ideas. Legitimation of knowledge by performativity terrorises the production of ideas.

What, then, is the alternative? Lyotard proposes that a better form of legitimation would be legitimation by paralogy. The etymology of this word resides in the Greek words para - beside, past, beyond - and logos in its sense as "reason. Lyotard sees reason not as a universal and immutable human faculty or principle but as a specific and variable human production; "paralogy" for him means the movement against an established way of reasoning.

In relation to research, this means the production of new ideas by going against or outside of established norms, of making new moves in language games, changing the rules of language games and inventing new games. Lyotard argues that this is in fact what takes place in scientific research, despite the imposition of the performativity criterion of legitimation. This is particularly evident in what Lyotard calls "postmodern science" - the search for instabilities [see Science and Technology].

Thus he advocates the legitimation of knowledge by paralogy as a form of legitimation that would satisfy both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown. Lyotard develops the philosophy of language that underlies his work on paganism and postmodernism most fully in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. This book is, by Lyotard's own estimation, both his most philosophical and most important. Here he analyses how injustices take place in the context of language. A differend is a case of conflict between parties that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both.

In the case of a differend, the parties cannot agree on a rule or criterion by which their dispute might be decided. A differend is opposed to a litigation - a dispute which can be equitably resolved because the parties involved can agree on a rule of judgement. Lyotard distinguishes the victim from the plaintiff. The later is the wronged party in a litigation; the former, the wronged party in a differend. In a litigation, the plaintiff's wrong can be presented.

A victim, for Lyotard, is not just someone who has been wronged, but someone who has also lost the power to present this wrong. This disempowerment can occur in several ways: it may quite literally be a silencing; the victim may be threatened into silence or in some other way disallowed to speak. Alternatively, the victim may be able to speak, but that speech is unable to present the wrong done in the discourse of the rule of judgement.

The victim may not be believed, may be thought to be mad, or not be understood. The discourse of the rule of judgement may be such that the victim's wrong cannot be translated into its terms; the wrong may not be presentable as a wrong. Lyotard presents various examples of the differend, the most important of which is Auschwitz. He uses the example of the revisionist historian Faurisson's demands for proof of the Holocaust to show how the differend operates as a sort of double bind or "catch But of course, any such eyewitnesses are dead and are not able to testify.

Faurisson concludes from this that there were no gas chambers. The situation is this: either there were no gas chambers, in which case there would be no eyewitnesses to produce evidence, or there were gas chambers, in which case there would still be no eyewitnesses to produce evidence since they would be dead. Since Faurisson will accept no evidence for the existence of gas chambers except the testimony of actual victims, he will conclude from both possibilities i. The situation is a double bind because there are two alternatives - either there were gas chambers or there were not - which lead to the same conclusion: there were no gas chambers and no Final Solution.

The case is a differend because the harm done to the victims cannot be presented in the standard of judgment upheld by Faurisson. Lyotard presents the logic of the double bind involved in the differend in general as follows: either p or not p; if not-p, then Fp; if p, then not-p, then Fp. The two possibilities p or not-p both lead to the same conclusion Fp.

Lyotard gives a further example of the logic of the double bind: it is like saying both either it is white, or it is not white; and if it is white it is not white. Another example of the differend which commentators on Lyotard often invoke is that of indigenous peoples' claims to land rights in colonised countries.

This example shows the relevance of Lyotard's work for practical problems of justice in the contemporary world. Let us take Australian Aborigines as an example. Many tribal groups claim that land which they traditionally inhabited is now owned and controlled by the descendants of European colonists. They claim that the land was taken from them wrongfully, and that it should be given back to them. There is a differend in this case because Aboriginal land rights are established by tribal law, and evidence for such rights may not be presentable in the law of the Australian government.

The court of appeal in which claims to land rights are heard functions entirely according to government law, and tribal law is not considered a valid system of judgment. In the case of a dispute over a certain area of land by farmers who are descendants of colonists on the one hand, and a tribe of Aborigines on the other hand, the court of appeal will be the one which involves the law that the farmers recognise government law , while the law that the Aborigines recognise tribal law will not be considered valid. It may be the case that the only evidence for the claim to land rights that the Aborigines have will not be admissible as evidence in the court of government law though it is perfectly acceptable in tribal law.

Hence, we have a case of a wrong which cannot be presented as a wrong; a differend. Lyotard develops the theory of the differend through a complex analysis of language, drawing heavily on analytic philosophers as well as ancients and early moderns. Lyotard's ontology of events is developed here in terms of the phrase as event, and the limits of representation are seen in the indeterminacy involved in the linking of phrases. Phrases, on Lyotard's account, may be extralinguistic, and can include signs, gestures, or anything that happens. Every event is to be understood as a phrase in the philosophy of the differend.

This characterisation of events as phrases may be understood as a theoretical fiction or "a way of speaking" which allows Lyotard to develop a theory of events through the analysis of language, just as the libidinal philosophy does using libidinal energy. Lyotard calls the way phrases are linked together in series, one after the other, the concatenation of phrases. The law of concatenation states that these linkages must be made - that is, a phrase must be followed by another phrase - but that how to link is never determinate.

There are many possible ways of linking on to a phrase, and no way is the right way. In order to characterise phrases as events which are beyond full understanding and accurate representation, Lyotard undermines the common view that the meanings of phrases can be determined by what they refer to the referent. That is, for Lyotard the meaning of a phrase as event something happens cannot be fixed by appealing to reality what actually happened. He develops this view of language by appealing to Saul Kripke's concept of the proper name as a "rigid designator" and by defining "reality" in an original way.

Proper names pick our referents in a way that is rigid and consistent but, according to Lyotard, empty of sense. For example, the name Fred may consistently pick out a particular person, but there are many different senses or meanings which may be attached to this person. Only phrases carry sense i. The proper name may fix reference, but does nothing to fix sense.

The name acts as a point which links the referent and the many senses which may be attached to it. Lyotard then defines reality as this complex of possible senses attached to a referent through a name. The correct sense of a phrase cannot be determined by a reference to reality, since the referent itself does not fix sense and reality itself is defined as the complex of competing senses attached to a referent.

The phrase event remains indeterminate. Lyotard uses the concepts of a phrase universe and of the difference between presentation and situation in order to show how phases can carry meanings and yet be indeterminate. Every phrase presents a universe, composed of the following four elements or, as Lyotard calls them, instances:. In the initial presentation of the phrase, the instances of the universe are equivocal.

That is, there are many possible ways in which the instances may be situated in relation to each other. Who or what uttered the phrase, and to whom? To what does the phrase refer? What sense of the phrase is meant? This equivocation means that the meaning of the phrase is not fixed in the initial presentation, and only becomes fixed through what Lyotard calls situation. Situation takes place when the instances of the phrase universe are fixed through the concatenation of phrases. That is, when the phrase is followed by another phrase. When phrases are concatenated, they follow rules for linking called phrase regimens.

Phrase regimens fix the instances of the phrase universe within a concatenation; these regimens are syntactic types of phrases such as the cognitive, the descriptive, the prescriptive, the interrogative, the evaluative, and so on. Any situation of a phrase within a concatenation will only be one possible situation of the initial presentation of the phrase, however. It is always possible to situate the phrase in a different way by concatenating with a different phrase regimen. In other words, the presentation of the phrase event is not able to be accurately represented by any particular situation.

This also means that there is no "correct" way of concatenating a phrase, no correct phrase regimen to be employed in following one phrase with another. Lyotard insists that phrase regimens are heterogenous and incommensurable. That is, they are of radically different types and cannot be meaningfully compared through an initial presentation of the phrase event of which they are situations.

However, different phrase regimens can be brought together through genres. Genres supply rules for the linking of phrases, but rather than being syntactic rules as phrase regimens are, genres direct how to concatenate through ends, goals, or stakes. What is at stake in the genre of comedy, for example, is to be humorous, to make people laugh. This goal directs how phrases are linked on from one to another. As an example, Lyotard suggests that the phrase "To arms! Genres of discourse can bring heterogenous phrase regimens together in a concatenation, but genres themselves are heterogenous and incommensurable.

This means that there is no "correct" genre in which to situate the initial phrase which is presented, and no genre has more validity than others. The differend arises on this level of genres when the phrase event gives rise to different genres, but one genre claims validity over the others. That is, one genre claims the exclusive right to impose rules of concatenation from the initial phrase. How do we know when a differend has occurred?

Lyotard says that it is signalled by the difficulty of linking on from one phrase to another. A differend occurs when a discourse does not allow the linkages which would enable the presentation of a wrong. Lyotard insists that phrases must, of necessity, follow other phrases - even silence is a kind of phrase, with its own generic effects. A silent phrase in the context of a dispute may be covering four possible states of affairs, corresponding to each of the instances in the phrase universe:.

In order for the referent to be expressed, these four silent negations must be withdrawn. Through the idea of the differend, Lyotard has drawn particular attention to the problems of the presentability of the referent when the parties in dispute cannot agree on a common discourse, or rule of judgement i. Justice demands, however, that wrongs be presented - we must at least try to "present the unpresentable. Lyotard does not believe that there is any easy answer. But for the sake of justice, we must try.

We must identify differends as best we can - sometimes, no more than vague feelings attest to the existence of a differend. It may be the feeling of "not being able to find the words. He privileges art as the realm which is best able to provide testimony to differends through its sublime effects [see Reason and Representation; Politics; Art and Aesthetics]. Lyotard's philosophy frequently calls into question the powers of reason, rejecting many of the claims that have been made about it in the history of philosophy.

The limitations of reason are particularly evident for Lyotard in regard to the problems of representation. Since Descartes, the dominant model of rational thought in Western philosophy has been that of the human subject representing the objective world to its self. It has frequently been claimed that in this way complete and certain knowledge is possible, at least in theory. Lyotard calls such claims into doubt through his thesis that events exceed representation.

Furthermore, Lyotard draws attention to the fact that reason tends to operate with structured systems of concepts which exclude the sensual and emotional, but that these exclusions can never be entirely maintained. On the one hand, any representation will miss something of the event, and on the other, non-rational forces such as feelings and desires will arise to disrupt rational schemas of thought. Lyotard's analysis of the limits of reason and representation is played out in Discours, figure through the terms of the discursive and the figural.

The discursive is the term used for reason and representation here; it is the rational system of representation by concepts that forms a system of oppositions. The figural is what exceeds rational representation; it appeals to sensual experience, emotions and desires. Lyotard uses the metaphors of flatness and depth to refer to discourse and figure, respectively. The opposition between discourse and figure is deconstructed, however, since to maintain it as an opposition would be to remain within the logic of discourse and to retain discourse as primary.

Lyotard introduces a distinction between opposition and difference to account for the differing ways in which the discursive and the figural function. Difference corresponds to figure, and the distinction between discourse and figure itself is said to be one of difference rather than opposition. In opposition, two terms are rigidly opposed and quite distinct; in difference, the two terms are mutually implicated, yet ultimately irreconcilable.

Difference is a disruptive force at the limits of discourse, indicating that no rational system of representation can ever be closed or complete, but is always opened up to forces sensual, emotional, figural that it cannot enclose within itself. In Discours, figure , Lyotard takes structuralism still a dominant intellectual trend in France in the early seventies when the book was written as an example of the excesses of reason and representation.

Structuralism seeks to explain everything in terms of underlying, conditioning structures that take the form of rigid systems of oppositions. His aim is to show that structuralism ignores the figural elements at work both outside and within representational structures. For Saussure, language is a "flat" system of opposing terms that gain meaning from each other, rather than from referents outside the system. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology suggests that we experience the world on a pre-cognitive level as ambiguous and somewhat chaotic sense data which must be synthesized by the perceiving subject in order to structure the world in a meaningful way.

Saussure's linguistics suggests that our understanding of the world is given as a structure to begin with, while Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology suggests that we first encounter an unstructured world, which we must work to structure. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological analysis of the depth of the visual field, Lyotard posits an interruption of the supposedly flat system of language by this depth.

This takes place through the deictic terms in language such as here, now, I, you, this which gain meaning by referring to temporal and spatial specificities in the world of the language-user. The discursive structure of language, therefore, needs reference at some points to sensual experience. The opposition is further deconstructed by Lyotard's insistence that our experience of space may also be structured in a discursive fashion.

Space can be broken into ordered elements related to each other in a structured and organised way, such as by mapping it with a three dimensional grid. A rigid theory of how the body interacts with space, as Merleau-Ponty may arguably be accused of developing, also exhibits structuralist tendencies. This leads Lyotard to a criticism of phenomenology as well, on the grounds that its descriptions of the body in the world are also too structural and do not account for the disruptive force of the figural. Lyotard sees Lacan's application of Saussurean linguistics to psychoanalysis as particularly worrisome.

Returning to Freud, Lyotard develops a theory of libidinal forces as figural, as disruptive of reason and representation. Reason and representation are further "critiqued" in the libidinal philosophy of Libidinal Economy and the related essays, although here the very idea of critique itself is called into question, since insofar as it remains theory, it remains within the oppositional logic of representational rationality.

Rather than opposing the libidinal to the rational, then, Lyotard develops his theory of dissimulation , the mutual enfoldment of the libidinal and the rational which is similar to the deconstructive logic of difference worked out in Discours, figure. Lyotard's main criticism of representation in the libidinal philosophy is that it is nihilistic.

He draws an analogy between representational structures and Friedrich Nietzsche's characterisation of religion and transcendental philosophy as forms of nihilism. For Nietzsche religion is nihilistic because it places the highest values as the ground for all values in a transcendent realm which cannot be accessed, thereby cutting us off from the highest values and devaluing the realm of our actual experience. According to Lyotard, representational theory follows this model by placing the reality that representation refers to in a transcendent realm.

Lyotard expresses this nihilism in terms of what he calls "the Great zero. Representation is nihilistic because it can never close the divide between representation and reality, effectively cutting off representational thought from access to reality. What is represented is constantly deferred. For Lyotard semiotics is a prime example of representational nihilism, because the definition of the sign is that it replaces something negating that which it replaces. Instead of opposing theory with alternative practises which are more libidinal, Lyotard asserts that theory itself is a libidinal practice which denies that it is libidinal.

The nihilistic aspect of representational theory is this denial of the libidinal. Theory attempts to be detached and "cold," and takes itself to be a stable and consistent structure which represents stable structures in the world. Lyotard's response to the nihilism of representational theory is not to propose an "other" to it which he believes is impossible , but to inscribe theory itself into the libidinal economy. It is the concept of dissimulation which makes this possible. Systems dissimulate affects. Representational theory is itself a libidinal dispositif , and Lyotard accentuates the libidinal aspects of theory in order to combat its nihilistic tendencies.

Against the nihilism of the semiotic sign Lyotard proposes a reinterpretation of the sign: the tensor. The tensor is a duplicitous sign. One of its sides or potentialities is the semiotic sign; this side is the potential to be inscribed in an existing structure of meaning.

Modern Photography - History and Concepts

The other side of the tensor contains residual potentialities for other meanings. This side of the tensor disrupts and escapes the system, flowing into new systems and structures. The tensor expresses the theory of dissimulation at work in the sign. We might think of the tensor as the semiotic sign dissimulating affects which might disrupt its meaning and flow into new systems.

The critique of reason and representation shift in Lyotard's postmodern philosophy from a focus on the figurative and libidinal forces which disrupt systems to an analysis of incommensurability in language and the limits of the rational faculty. Lyotard uses Wittgenstein's idea of language games to show that reason and representation cannot be totalizing. The end of metanarratives means that no single overarching theory can pretend to account for everything. Rather, the postmodern condition is composed of fragmented language games attached to incommensurable forms of life.

For Lyotard language is composed of a multiplicity of phrase regimes which cannot be translated into each other. Some are descriptive, some prescriptive, etc. These phrase regimes have no outside criteria for comparison. Between them lies the differend, an absolute difference which cannot be reconciled. In Lyotard's postmodern philosophy, then, reason and representation are set limits by the incommensurability of language games; it is not possible for reason to understand everything through a representational system.

In the postmodern philosophy events are analyzed as phrases, and again Lyotard asserts that events exceed representation in that no representational system can account for all phrases. Furthermore, Lyotard's postmodernism draws attention to the limits of reason through its focus on the sublime. The differend is experienced as a feeling of not being able to find the words to express something; it signals the limits of one language game or phrase regime and the attempt to move on to another one.

Lyotard analyses this experience in terms of Kant's idea of the sublime, which is itself an experience of the limits of reason. In Kant's philosophy, the sublime is the mixed feeling of pleasure and pain that we feel in the face of something of great magnitude and grandeur. We can have an idea of such things, but we cannot match up that idea with a direct sensory intuition since sublime objects surpass our sensory abilities.

An example of a sublime object for Kant would be a mountain; we can have an idea of a mountain, but not a sensory intuition of it as a whole. We feel pain at the frustration of our faculties to fully grasp the sublime object, but a pleasure as well in the attempt to do so. Lyotard extends the notion of the sublime from that which is absolutely great to all things which confound our abilities to synthesize them into knowledge.

Thus the sublime is situated at the differend between language games and phrase regimes; we feel a mixture of pleasure and pain in the frustration of not knowing how to follow on from a phrase but feeling that there is something important that must be put into words. In Lyotard's postmodern philosophy the sublime is the feeling that indicates the limits of reason and representation. Like many other prominent French thinkers of his generation such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze , Lyotard develops critiques of the subject and of humanism.

Lyotard's misgivings about the subject as a central epistemological category can be understood in terms of his concern for difference, multiplicity, and the limits of organisational systems. For Lyotard the subject as traditionally understood in philosophy acts as a central point for the organisation of knowledge, eliminating difference and disorderly elements. Lyotard seeks to dethrone the subject from this organisational role, which in effect means decentring it as a philosophical category. He sees the subject not as primary, foundational, and central, but as one element among others which should be examined by thought.

Furthermore, he does not see the subject as a transcendent and immutable entity, but as produced by wider social and political forces. In the libidinal philosophy, the subject is construed as one organisational structure or dispositif which channels and exploits libidinal energies. Like other structures which threaten to be hegemonic, Lyotard proposes its disruption through the release of the libidinal forces it contains which are not consistent with it.

What is the Avant-Garde? Art Movements & Styles

That is, the opening of the subject to forces which are deemed irrational, such as feelings and desires. Furthermore, Lyotard's insistence that the freeing of dissimulated libidinal forces can only be passively done and not actively controlled is motivated by his identification of wilful acts with the organisational subject.


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  • In Lyotard's postmodern philosophy, the fragmentation of language games also means the social subject fragments and seems to dissolve. The subject cannot be seen as a master of language games, a unifying power, but is rather a node at which different incommensurable language games intersect. Lyotard furthermore asserts that avant-garde art works of the twentieth century do not reinforce the subject, but call it into question through the unsettling effect of the sublime. Humanism is also called into question in Lyotard's later philosophy through the term "Inhuman. He asks why, if humanism is correct that there is a human nature, we are not born human but rather have to go through a terroristic education in order to become acceptably human.

    The term "Inhuman" has two meanings for Lyotard. Firstly, it refers to the dehumanising effects of science and technology in society. Secondly, it refers to those potentially positive forces that the idea of the human tries to repress or exclude, but which inevitably return with disruptive effects. Lyotard tries to show the limit of the humanistic ideal by imagining a science-fiction-like scenario in which, in 4. In one sense this survival is the humanist dream since survival is essential for the central importance of the human race in the universe , but in another sense it might constitute the end of the human, since the changes required to survive in space would be so radical as to erase anything we currently recognise as human.

    On the one hand Lyotard criticises the dehumanising effects of the progress of science and technology that are themselves bound up with the idea of human progress, and on the other he affirms the dehumanising forces that open up our thinking to more than a simple definition of the human.

    Lyotard develops some reflections on science and technology within the scope of his postmodern philosophy [see The Postmodern Condition]. The changing status of science and technology is a primary feature of the postmodern condition, and Lyotard calls certain new forms of science postmodern. His concern with an ontology of events and a politics of competing representations of those events underlies his theorization of science and technology in postmodernity, in which the collapse of metanarratives has meant the proliferation of multiple, incommensurable language games of which science is only one.

    We should interpret Lyotard as taking this to be a good thing, since such a proliferation more accurately reflects his general ontological view of the world as composed of events which give rise to multiple interpretations, and which can never be accurately captured by a single narrative. Metanarratives do violence to alternative representations of events that are valid in their own right. Lyotard sees the rise of capital, science and technology linked through legitimation by performativity as a similar threat, however. He calls this threat "terrorism": the threat of exclusion from playing a language game.

    The principle of legitimation functioning in capitalism is efficiency or performativity [see The Postmodern Condition], and this principle attempts to be hegemonic. Science and technology are prime candidates for this attempted hegemony, since they contribute to the growth of capital. Lyotard accepts that performativity is a legitimate criterion for technology, but argues that it is not proper to science. Following to some extent philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, Lyotard argues that the performativity criterion does not accurately capture the kind of knowledge developed in the sciences nor the way such knowledge develops.

    For Lyotard, science is a language game to which legitimation by performativity is not proper. Such performativity merely subordinates science to capital. Postmodern science, however, does not function according to a legitimation by performativity precisely because it undermines determinism. Postmodern science searches for instabilities in systems, undermining predictability.

    Lyotard cites thermodynamics as the beginning of performativity in terms of determinism, and suggests that quantum mechanics and atomic physics have limited the applicability of this principle. Postmodern sciences, which concern themselves with undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, "fracta," catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes, continue to undermine performativity in the form of determinism.

    Furthermore, postmodern science is undermining legitimation by performativity by retheorizing the way science itself develops: science does not develop in a progressive fashion and towards a unified knowledge, but in a discontinuous and paradoxical manner, undermining previous paradigms by the development of new ones. This is what Lyotard calls legitimation by paralogy. He suggests that science may be undergoing a paradigm shift from deterministic performativity to the paralogy of instabilities. Yet this is only a possibility: performativity still looms large on the horizon.

    Lyotard suggests science could go either way. He champions paralogy over performativity, since it contributes to healthy research in the sciences and undermines the hegemonic control capital attempts to have. Postmodern science is about the generation of new ideas rather than the efficient application of existing knowledge. Lyotard is also concerned about the social impact of science and technology in postmodernity. He sees the performativity criterion as applying not just to science, technology, and capital, but to the State as well.

    According to the performativity criterion, society is seen as a system which must aim for efficient functioning, and this efficiency is a kind of terror which threatens to exclude inefficient elements. Furthermore, in post-industrial society information has become a primary mode of production, and Lyotard is concerned that in the interests of maximising profits information will become increasingly privatised by corporations. He proposes the possibility of IBM having exclusive control of databases and satellites.

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    In response to these threats, Lyotard proposes that the public be given free access to memory and data banks. This will allow computerization to contribute to knowledge functioning by paralogy rather than by performativity, and to the free functioning of society as a set of heterogenous elements rather than an efficient system, removing the threat of terror. Lyotard's early political commitments were to revolutionary socialism and a relatively orthodox Marxism see Biography and Early Works b Algeria. Despite his radical disillusion with these early political commitments, however, a strong political concern remains a central feature of all of Lyotard's mature works.

    Having rejected the possibility of a politics based on a single theory that will accurately capture the truth of all social events such as Marxism , Lyotard's later concern is to do justice to multiple social realities. He is concerned with the free proliferation of heterogenous elements in society, and for him the institutions of politics and traditional political theory limit multiplicities and differences. Lyotard's politics can be traced back to his general concern for events and the limits of representation.

    There is a strong correlation between his concern that events are not done justice by any one theoretical, representational system, and his concern that events of political import are not done justice by the way any particular political party or philosophy represents them. The politics of the libidinal philosophy revolves around a nuanced reading of Marx and a duplicitous relation to capitalism.

    While Lyotard has given up on the possibility and desirability of a socialist revolution, he is still interested in the deployment of revolutionary desires. Libidinal Economy contains a reading of Marx's texts as works of art, an emphasis which seeks to release the libidinal aspects of Marx, the desire for revolution. Lyotard's interpretation of capitalism in the libidinal economy sees two possibilities inherent in capitalism, each entwined and inextricable. On the one hand, capitalism is a good system for the circulation of libidinal energies; it encourages enterprising explorations of and investments in new areas.

    On the other hand, capitalism tends to hoard up libidinal energy into structured and regulated systems, restricting its flow. This latter tendency is at work in the capitalist exploitation that Marx rallied against.


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    • Lyotard interprets these two tendencies of capitalism in terms of the theory of dissimulation. For Lyotard, there is no possible society that is not open to the desire to exploit and hoard libidinal energy in the way the capitalist does. This means that there is no utopian society free from exploitation, either pre-capitalist or post-revolutionary. Lyotard's libidinal politics is not aimed at overthrowing capitalism, then, but of working within it to release the libidinal energies dissimulated within its structures.

      Practically, this also means working within existing political institutions, but "passively," so as to release as much desire dissimulated within those institutions as possible, without constraining desires through planned outcomes. Lyotard's postmodern politics involves the attempt to rethink the political after the death of metanarratives such as Marxism and liberalism. Lyotard rejects all dominant political ideologies as master-narratives which exclude minorities and do violence to the heterogenous nature of social reality.

      This rejection is manifested in the philosophy of paganism that preceded Lyotard's postmodernism. In its mature form, Lyotard's postmodern politics deals with the concern for justice and the need to bear witness to the differend. In the case of a differend, a wrong is done to a party who cannot phrase their hurt See Postmodernism c The Differend. For Lyotard, no just resolution of a differend is possible. Because of the radical incommensurability of phrase regimes in the case of a differend, any "resolution" would only assert the legitimacy of one phrase regime at the cost of silencing the other, thus deepening the wrong.

      Justice demands a witnessing and a remembering of the fact that there is a differend. This means presenting the fact that a wrong has been done which cannot itself be presented. This is then the contradictory task of presenting the unpresentable, a task Lyotard sees as best accomplished in the arena of art.

      Lyotard was a prolific writer on both art and philosophical aesthetics.