J. F. Lyotard
- Derek Robbins - University of East London, UK
The Postmodern Condition was widely acclaimed as the bible of postmodernism and Lyotard was unwillingly elevated by his readers to a position of almost papal authority. Yet the twenty seven books published in his lifetime, to say nothing of the lectures, articles and other interventions, reveal a complex, multi-dimensional thinker who cannot be confined by the label 'postmodernist'.
Profoundly influenced by the inhumanity of the second world war, Lyotard began his career in Algeria where he fell under the influence of this historian, Pierre Sourys who introduced him to the Socialisme ou Barbarie group which included Cornelius Catroiadis, Claude Lefort and Jean Laplanche. With roots in Trotskyism, this group embarked on a
critique of the Soviet command state and, through this, of the general validity of Marxist explanation. Lyotard's sojourn in Algeria also refined his hostility to colonialism and the myth of Western superiority. It is from this moment that the beginnings of Lyotard's disillusionment with 'grand narratives' can be traced.
Lyotard broke with Socisalime ou Barbarie in 1963. However, his experiences clearly predisposed him to join the Mouvement du 22 mars in 1968 and influenced his turbulent relations with the Universisty of Nanterre concerning questions of the curriculum and student rights. Later he became a noted supporter of the various critical minority movements that developed in the wake of 'the events' of 1968.
This collection, edited by a noted expert on French social and cultural theory, reveals Lyotard's questing and clear eyed critical intelligence in all of its profound cogency. The characteristic themes of the heterogeneity of language, the tyranny of imposed authority, the future of democracy, the contradictions of justice and the virtues of the post-modern imagination which re-radicalized a generation in the 1980s and '90s are all thoroughly explored here. Lyotard's relation to Kant, Marx and a range of contemporary thinkers including Adorno. Said, Kuhn, Habermas, Foucault and Derrida is elucidated with great clarity. What emerges most forcefully is Lyotard's extraordinary generosity of thought. His approach enjoined a responsibility to scrutinize any context in which power is exercised in the name of an organization or an ideal. Lyotard redefined the meaning of intellectual dissent and in doing so, suggested an important range of political and cultural responsibilities in the postmodern world.
This collection, prepared five years after the death of its subject, allows readers to make sense of this major thinker, especially in the light of critical reassessments of his life and work.