Postmodernity Ahoy! (PT7)

Chapter 7: “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” by Jean Francois Lyotard

                This time around Lyotard is concerned with knowledge. Knowledge and information. More specifically he is hard-pressed to find out how knowledge is related to scientific procedure which in turn is related to discourse and ideology. In other words he is searching out a theory on how capitalism and information relate to one another. It sounds like a big bite to swallow. Many of his Leftist critics thought so as well. But whether or not it was too much to avoid chocking on his piece here has some interesting things to say.

Lyotard starts by discussing knowledge in computerized societies. Societies in which advanced capitalism has taken root to such an extent that information and its consumption is prized like a commodity. He muses on knowledge and how it may someday become the driving force behind production and be exchanged as the top commodity. That the state will have to find means to defend their societal role while revolutionizing their image and access to this store of knowledge (124-6).

From here he launches into his discussion on legitimation. This part is complicated because it is so interwoven into aspects of this piece. But essentially this concept involves means of proving that a certain proposal is more factual than an opposing, adversarial proposal. Ways to do this are varied: history, sociology, mathematics but what Lyotard focuses on is science and its dialectical web of activity with the state, technological advancement, and how the various players in the sciences validate their own role within this legitimation process (127-8).

Part of this process involves what he calls ‘language games’. Or, the “various categories of utterances [that] can be defined in terms of rules specifying their properties and the ways to which they can be put. (129)” At first this seems like a spurious inclusion. But it is soon revealed that language relates to what Lyotard dubs ‘social bonds’,the manner in which men and woman associate in an organized society in relation to the ruling class, and language games help define these bonds which in turn help define the process of legitimation.

Defining this legitimation even under these auspices is no easy task. To help in this quest then, Lyotard makes distinction narrative knowledge and scientific knowledge. The former is something which legitimates itself, and hence something which belongs to modernity, while the latter is something which, though still striving to deal with its own inadequacies, maintains a process which it seeks to legitimate. One of the problems with this, however, is that this drive to legitimate fuels the own processes delegitimation (139). Hence why contemporary society has latched onto a mode of legitimation dependant on performativity and production linked to this performativity as a means to maximizing profits in all sectors of life (politically, artistically, socially, etc.).

Of course, postmodernity, with its emphasis on a variety of discourses, escapes this pitfall by advocating its own evolution as discontinuous and paradoxical; the need for consensus, another term for power, is therefore stripped of its relevance and usurped by a legitimation by paralogy. Temporary contracts in all social realms provide an alternative to stable metanarrative, that destabilizing agent which lacks a ‘pure alternative’ to the system while instead offering but merely the “sketches [of] the outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown. (146)”

Obviously Lyotard’s theory here is more complex than I am making it out. Yet in a nutshell the above summary is what is advocating. It has its faults in outlook yet considering that it was written in 1984 and offers a vision of the future of information, knowledge and technology which is taking shape (in some form), it is a remarkable piece. I still disagree with far more than I agree with but it should be emphasized that the tale Lyotard is telling should not be overlooked.


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