Postmodernity Ahoy! (PT17)

Chapter 17 & 19: “Answer to the Question: What is the Postmodern?” and “Psychoanalysis, Aesthetics, and Difference (An Interview)” by Jean-Francois Lyotard.

                I normally try to avoid going out of order and giving responses which deviate from the established order of the book but considering the nature of the two related pieces I decided to place them together into a single piece. The first is a letter Lyotard wrote concerning the nature of difference in art while the second is an interview he gave to the journal Theory, Culture and Society. Both selections complement one another in their content.

As alluded to previously, chapter 17 is where Lyotard is discussing what he considers the postmodern to be. In explaining his conception of the postmodern artistic aesthetic Lyotard utilizes the concept of realism and the sublime. He begins by asserting that a concept and its referent need not be addressed; experimentation and creativity presupposes convention (231). This is why the dynamics of mechanical reproduction can be seen as a positive if the task at hand is to challenge the status-quo in terms of offering a new narrative; additionally, this is why reexamination is required in order to prevent the new order from becoming the dominant order insofar as the question of modern aesthetics is concerned. The artist must experiment and keep the culture out of the hands of totalizing agents (233; governments, political parties, etc.). In this way the sublime plays a key role in the maintenance of a referent: following Kant, if there is no, what the semioticians would call a signifier to the signified (235), then the sensation still in existence can be driven toward an avant-garde usage in relation to the challenge of modernist realism (the totalizing agents). Difference, therefore, establishes itself as the coexistence of between sublime, realism, and nostalgia (237); in forging new concepts from the remnants of the old via questioning the artists sets their selves up as a new breed of philosopher, made to not “provide reality” but to “invent allusions to what is conceivable but not presentable.”

Following this theme of difference, Lyotard’s interview traces the concept of difference over the course of his academic works. Without going into details of this lengthy interview, it is best to summarize this chapter as both a refresher of the previous entries by Lyotard in this reader as well as a decent amount of new material which, unless you mastered the previous content, will not understand without a hefty amount of background knowledge; which brings me to my next point: it is dense; the interview, even if taken with a solid understanding of the previous selections, is difficult to comprehend because of its utilization of texts (by Lyotard) not covered in this reader and by an extensive array of philosophical topics which fuse with the core material flawlessly. Psychology, aesthetics and the politics of difference- each and every one is linked to philosophy and so without understanding these links, it is impossible to understand the piece. Hence, because of this density, I will simply say that the interview should be approached with the utmost caution; intellectuals only.

Well, this is where I will stop for this entry. An effort to trace over the details of this piece would entail a gigantic piece, so suffice it to say the take-away thoughts from this piece is this: Lyotard is defending his thesis(es) against the interviewer’s critical questions by relating them to (primarily) Kant and modernism; essentially showing the weak points. Lyotard is clearing the air and maintaining his stance by employing critique and defense of the postmodern; in other words, throwing the interviewer’s words back in his face, albeit in a polite rephrasing. It is, in any case, a powerfully thought-provoking interview and should be read by all those curious minds.

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