Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)

Dean Casale, a fellow faculty member at Kean University, and I have been holding a faculty seminar on the topic of the influence of capital in the university. Our reading list raises such issues as the changing position of the “student-subject,” the role of the professor, and the content of education. Our topic touches on a problem in the humanities, namely how the humanities justify themselves by claiming to make students more marketable, as though English merely teaches the critical thinking, writing, and communication skills that are necessary for employment, or such affective qualities as empathy and appreciation of diversity, which are also valued by employers. All that is hopefully true, and it is certainly great justification for the humanities. Yet what is potentially lost are humanities’ other virtues, such as critique, and perhaps what needs to be articulated is a rationale for the humanities that does not evoke the marketplace. Our seminar is going to lead to a conference at Kean University in spring, so anyone interested in participating, check UPenn for our call for papers.

Lyotard-imageOne of our primary texts for the seminar is Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. In preparing for our discussion, I made an outline of his argument. The page numbers correspond to Brian Massumi’s 1984 translation, published by the University of Minnesota Press. Much of the wording comes directly from the text, even if I did not use quotations marks, because the outline should be used in conjunction with the text itself. This morning I was thinking that it may help some people trying to work through Lyotard’s challenging argument, so I decided to post it.


An Outline of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979)

Introduction (xxii-xxv)

Science is in conflict with narratives, yet whenever science goes outside of making denotative statements, it legitimates the rules of its own language games through a discourse called philosophy.

Modern, a term to designate any science that legitimates itself through metanarrative, “such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.” Think Hegel, Freud, Marx, Kant, and other grand narratives.

Postmodern, a term to designate “incredulity toward metanarrative,” which is a result of the progress in the sciences


1) The Field: Knowledge in Computerized Sciences (3-6)

Postmodern age begins in 1950s

Scientific knowledge is a kind of discourse, and technological transformations impact knowledge, particularly in its two principle functions: “research and the transmission of acquired learning” (teaching).

Knowledge is exteriorized (rather than training of minds, and the internalization of knowledge, it is stored in data and memory banks to be used in the moment)

Knowledge is a commodity, produced to be sold and consumed; it loses its use-value (knowledge is not pursued as an end in itself, but for its potential marketability and exchange).

As an informational commodity, knowledge becomes a stake in worldwide competition for power, and multinational corporations and capital compete and vanquish the State in the competition.


2) The Problem: Legitimation (6-9)

Science is not the only kind of knowledge; it exists in competition with another kind: narrative

“Legitimation is the process by which a legislator dealing with scientific discourse is authorized to prescribe the stated conditions…determining whether a statement is to be included in that discourse for consideration by the scientific community.”

Knowledge and power are connected: “who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided?” [Thus, there is not a simply binary or taking sides between narrative and science, because government and capital intervene in the legitimation; and as will be seen near the end of the book, postmodern science points to a possible alternative form of legitimation: paralogy].


3) The Method: Language Games (9-11)

Building off Wittgenstein, Lyotard says, “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 piece, in other words, the proper way to move.” [For example, in science’s language game, it makes denotative statements or statements about regularities, and precludes statements of prescription.]

[Language games are not the method of legitimation, but the method of Lyotard’s analysis, presumably because descriptions of “games” make no claims to a grand narrative and merely define the discursive moves and rules of different kinds of knowledge; it thereby puts all knowledge on the same level of analysis.]

Lyotard makes 3 observations about language games:

1)      Rules do not carry within them their own legitimation

2)      If there are no rules, there is no game, and “moves” or utterances that do not follow rules are not part of the particular game

3)      Every utterance is a “move” in a game.

The first principle underlying his method: to speak is to fight (not necessarily to win, sometimes for pleasure of invention)

The second principle: “the observable social bond is composed of language ‘moves.’” [Thus, frees him from appealing to a metanarrative or representational model of society]


4. The Nature of the Social Bond: The Modern Alternative (11-14)

Preliminary question need to answer before discussing knowledge in highly developed society: what representational model of society are we using? The modern offers two options: functional whole or divided in two. On one hand, technocrats, functional knowledge, homogeneity, and positive knowledge. On the other, critical theory, critical knowledge, intrinsic duality, and reflexive, hermeneutic knowledge. Think Comte on one side, and Marx on the other. A vision of a unified totality and a vision of contradictions and class antagonisms.


5. The Nature of the Social Bond: the Postmodern Perspective (14-17)

The binary alternatives are unacceptable and out of step with postmodern knowledge

As a method, language games free us from the two modern representational models: “But there is no need to resort to some fiction of social origins to establish that language games are the minimum relation required for society to exist.” The social bond is a language game, because “it immediately positions” the sender, the addressee, and the referent.


6. The Pragmatics of Narrative Knowledge (18-23)

Knowledge is more than a set of denotative statements, but also competence (know-how), “knowing how to live,” “how to listen,” etc., and it conforms to consensus of a social circle of “knowers.”

“Narration is the quintessential form of customary knowledge,” distinct from its state in the scientific age, because narrative form 1) allow a society to “define its criteria of competence” and “evaluate what is performed or can be performed within it; 2) “lends itself to a great variety of language games”; 3) the rules that “define the pragmatics of their transmission” illustrate a “threefold competence—“know-how,” “knowing how to speak,” and “knowing how to listen”—which constitutes a social bond; 4) “its effects on time”; society has no need to remember the past, because “raw material for its social bond” is contained in meaning of the narrative and the act of recitation; and 5) the culture has “no need for special procedures to authorize its narratives.”

In short, traditional narratives are “legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do.” There is “immediate legitimation.”


7. The Pragmatics of Scientific Knowledge (23-27)

In summarizing the pragmatics of scientific knowledge, Lyotard distinguishes between the “research game” and the “teaching game.”

For research, 1) sender speaks truth about the referent; 2) the addressee can accept or reject statements he hears; 3) referent expressed in statements is supposed to conform to actuality – which raises the problem of proof, which are supposedly resolved in 19th century criteria of verification and 20th century falsification.

While research needs equals to confirm truth of statements (fellow researchers), in teaching 1) the addressee (the student) lacks equal competence with the sender (teacher); yet 2) student can acquire the competence; and 3) trust or presumption that the proof under the pragmatics of research are reliable and worthy of didactic transmission.

Five points of comparison between pragmatics of science and narrative knowledge

  1. In scientific knowledge, statements are only denotative, and all other kinds are excluded
  2. Scientific knowledge is not a “direct and shared component of the social bond”
  3. In scientific knowledge, competence is only required by the sender, not the addressee
  4. “A statement of science gains no validity from the fact of being reported.”
  5. The science game is diachronic, because it requires memory (of previous statements) and a project.

Conclusion: Science knowledge and narrative knowledge do not possess the basis to judge each other’s validity. Yet narrative knowledge is tolerant of scientific knowledge, while scientific knowledge judges narrative knowledge, which lacks arguments for proof, as backward, ideology, opinions, and so forth.


8. The Narrative Function and the Legitimation of Knowledge (27-31)

Science has sought solutions to its crisis of legitimation, in particular it resorts to narrative for legitimation: “Scientific knowledge cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative, kind of knowledge, which from its point of view has no knowledge at all.” Modern science leaves behind metaphysics of proof of the proof and recognizes that the “conditions of truth” are immanent in the “game,” whose rules are confirmed by experts. Yet it also joins to the establishment of the conditions of truth, a narrative, (something like scientific progress for the good of the people), a story about the hero of knowledge or the hero of liberty.


9 Narratives of Legitimation of Knowledge (31-37)

There are 2 versions of narrative of legitimation: 1) political and 2) philosophical

In the first, humanity is the hero of liberty (which de-emphasizes the need for higher education); the “State resorts to the narrative of freedom every time is assumes direct control over the training of ‘people,’ under the name of the ‘nation,’ in order to point them down the path of progress.”

In the second, science for its own sake has at its goal “the spiritual and moral training of the nation,” which seems like two incompatible language games or discourses. Yet a synthesis is achieved when the subject is changed from the people or humanity to the “speculative spirit,” which makes the “game of legitimation” philosophical. The “University is speculative,” restoring “unity to learning,” and linking disparate sciences “together as moments in the becoming spirit,” or rather, a “rational metanarration.” Think Hegel.

Today, the “speculative unity” is broken, and “the first version of legitimation is gaining a new vigor.” For the speculative subject, there exists the self-legitimation of knowledge. For the practical subject (humanity or the people), legitimation is in the self-grounding of freedom, the story of emancipation.


10. Delegitimation (37-41)

Yet, today legitimation is formulated in different terms, because of the decline in narrative that is resultant of the growth in technology and the advance in capital. Meanwhile, the seeds of delegitimation and nihilism were inherent in 19th century grand narratives, when the truth requirement of science was turn back against itself [Perhaps, for example, How do you verify the criteria of verification?] Thus, the process of delegitimation was fueled by the demand for legitimation itself, and universities lost their function as speculative legitimation and emphasized the need for teachers, not researchers. There is also an intrinsic erosion in the narrative of emancipation, but it differs from that of the speculative discourse; when science plays its own language game, it is incapable of others, such as prescriptions, and cannot legitimate itself. In postmodernity, there is a recognition of multiple language games and a sense of “splintering,” and nobody can speak all the distinct discourses, and no universal metalanguage can join them. Thus, scholars become researchers with compartmentalized tasks.


11. Research and Its Legitimation through Performativity

In the pragmatics of research, there are 2 important changes: 1) a multiplication of the methods of argumentation and 2) rising complexity in the establishment of proof.

1) The “argumentation required for a scientific statement to be accepted is thus subordinated to a ‘first’ acceptance (which is in fact constantly renewed by virtue of the principle of recursion) of the rules defining allowable means of argumentation.” There is a “plurality of formal and axiomatic systems capable of arguing the truth of denotative statements.”

2) Proof needs to appeal to the referent “reality.” Thus, technological is called in to optimize human observation and produce proof—which requires capital investment. No money, no proof. Yet the capital investment demands performativity and recommercialization. Thus, applied research is funded before basic research. The goal is no longer truth, but performativity. Science augments power (State and companies)

Key question: what does the discourse of power consist of and can it constitute a legitimation?

Answer: Performance improvement “can pass” as legitimation.

“By reinforcing technology, one ‘reinforces’ reality, and one’s chances of being just and right increase accordingly. Reciprocally, technology is reinforced all the more effectively if one has access to scientific knowledge and decision-making authority…. This is how legitimation by power takes shape.”


12. Education and Its Legitimation through Performativity (47-53)

The influence of the performativity criterion on education results in the following goal: “the optimal contribution of higher education to the best performativity of the social system”

Two skills emphasized: 1) telematics and 2) skills to fulfill society’s needs (or skills in disciplines to fill pragmatic posts.

In functional higher learning, students join either 1) professional intelligentsia or 2) technical intelligentsia. The rest are unemployed or not counted.

The university also plays the role of retraining and continuing education, where knowledge will be served “a la carte” rather than “en bloc.”

Further consequences:

  • Experimentation in education will be excluded
  • Performativity subordinates education to power
  • Knowledge is no longer an end in itself
  • The university loses its autonomy
  • In regard to content (what is transmitted), it is organized around a stock of established knowledge, and becomes how to use a terminal. In place of “what is true?” we ask, “what use is it?” “Is it saleable?” “Is it efficient?”
  • The market for operational skills opens up.
  • Competence means the “capacity to actualize relevant data for solving a problem ‘here and now’ and to organize that data into an efficient strategy.”
  • The rise of interdisciplinary studies is the result of reorganizing data, with no metanarrative to formulate a goal, only brainstorming to improve performance.
  • The rise of teamwork, because it improves performance.
  • The death knell of the professor, who is no more competent than a memory bank or interdisciplinary teams


13. Postmodern Science as the Search for Instabilities (53-60)

The problem for postmodern science: performativity presumes determinism; or, rather, if the system is stable, then the input will follow a regular path to output. Thus, postmodern science does not have performativity as its goal, but theorizes “its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical.” It changes the meaning of knowledge, by “producing not the known, but the unknown.”

Key point: “And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as it basis difference understood as paralogy.”


14. Legitimation by Paralogy (60-67)

The problem: is legitimation by paralogy possible?

Paralogy is not exactly innovation, which works under the command of the system with the aim of improving it. Rather, paralogy is a move “played it the pragmatics of knowledge.”

Rather than grand narratives, little narratives

In place of consensus, dissension, and rules are locally determined.

The postmodern development in the pragmatics of science: it foregrounds and understands that “discussions of denotative statements need to have rules,” which are metaprescriptive utterances. Parology points out these metaprescriptive utterances and asks players to accept different ones. “The only legitimation that can make this kind of request admissible is that it will generate ideas, in other words, new statements.”

Thus, paralogy advocates a heterogeneity of rules and a search for dissent.

“We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus” (against Habermas)

  • The first step: “a recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games”
  • Second step: consensus of rules in language games are local and subject to cancelation.

This will lead to a multiplicity of finite meta-arguments, which corresponds with the current course in the evolution of the social: temporary contracts supplanting permanent institutions.

Computers could be the dream instrument for power, BUT they could also aid groups discussing metaprescriptions (paralogists). Thus, Lyotard calls for giving the public free access to memory and data banks.


Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His award winning novel Cartilage and Skin was published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His scholarly monograph entitled The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, Foucault, is forthcoming with Davies Group, Publishers. He is currently at work on a funny, fast paced, literary novel called Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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