Lyotard, Jean-François

Assigned: Lyotard, Jean-François. “Defining the Postmodern” (1385-88). Also read the editors’ introduction (1383-85).

“Defining the Postmodern” (1986)

1. On 1385-88 (“I should like to make…”), Lyotard examines three of what he says are many debates involved in defining the postmodern. Concerning the first argument (1385-86), how does he characterize the “fissure” (1385) or break that some theorists of the postmodern say has taken place after modernism? How does he redefine this concept of a break from modernist assumptions about art and politics? In what sense does the French word “bricolage” (1385) matter to this redefinition?

2. On 1386-87 (“The second point…”), concerning the second argument, what is the difference between “progress” and “development” (1386)? What implications does the widespread rejection of technology and science as the agents of inevitable progress have for us in the postmodern world? Consider the implications of Lyotard’s framework, for instance, in light of relations between the “first world” that confronts but cannot reject its own complexity and the “third world” that is tasked with survival.

3. On 1387-88 (“The third argument is more complex…”), as for the third argument about post-modernity, what insights does Lyotard draw from avant-garde and postmodernist painters regarding the relationship between past and present? How does he invoke Freud’s theory about the “dream-work” to reinforce his claims?

4. General question: Does Jean-François Lyotard’s interest in art as an activity that resists the reduction or annihilation of anything that doesn’t fit into the modern/postmodern scheme of things amount to a sufficient answer against critics of supposed postmodern apathy and helplessness? Why or why not?

5. General question: Our editors point out that Jean-François Lyotard’s text Just Gaming (Au Juste) emphasizes the need to prevent one individual or group’s “violating another’s chosen way of life” (Editors’ introduction, 1384). That is a response to those (such as Jürgen Habermas, Leitch 1492-1513) who consider postmodernist authors politically irresponsible. Do you think it is a sufficient response and counter-argument? Why or why not? For example, how should a great power like the USA deal with extreme poverty, famine, etc. in a given foreign state, say a “failed” state where abuse and corruption are rampant? On what principle could we justify (or not justify) a course of action to alleviate such suffering? Does bringing in the United Nations change the situation in a fundamental way? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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