The Postmodern Condition, A Report on Knowledge, by Francois Lyotard, first published in French in 1979, was not the first book to carry the word postmodern in its title, but probably one of the most influential ones in the long term, with both its warnings and sometimes its overly optimistic assumptions about the future of knowledge in a computerised society. Reading it now what is perplexing is the rather one-sided reception it has got. While Lyotard's critique of meta-narratives and the proposed switch to language games has characterised the postmodern debate, his ambiguity about the development of science and the university under the condition of neoliberalism appears to have been given much less consideration by his followers.
Lyotard's 'Report' is prescient, yet highly ambivalent in the way he anticipated the development of science under the imperative of 'performativity'. Section 1 starts with an assessment of the status of knowledge under the influence of computerisation. This necessarily very condensed report of 67 pages (or 88, if you include the chapter on art at the end, which is not organically connected to the main text), takes as its starting point what elsewhere has been called the 'linguistic turn': the increased attention given to language in various scientific disciplines, which gained momentum (although it started earlier) after WWII in areas such as linguistics, communications, theoretics, algebra (the Bourbaki school) and informatics, data bases, telematics and related areas.
Knowledge as the driving force of commodity capitalism
After a quick fly-through those theories and areas of knowledge, Lyotard arrives at some pretty strong conclusions. "It [knowledge] can fit into the new channels and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information" (p. 4) Lyotard 'predicts' that "anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer languages" (p.4). Without quoting Marx, the development of thought follows, in this regard, an essentially Marxist pattern: the development of the base - the computerisation of society - will have inevitable consequences on the world of ideas. "Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as "knowledge" statements" (p.4). While this may or may not be true, or at least an interesting question to be thought about in all its consequences, sometimes Lyotard appears to fall victim of narratives about technoscientific progress, for instance when he writes that "research on translating machines is already well advanced" - thereby implying that machine intelligence will soon be able to replace human intelligence in certain areas. Such an "exteriorization of knowledge", Lyotard claims, renders obsolete "the old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of the minds" (p. 4). Knowledge will not only increasingly become a commodity, which loses its use-value (pp.4-5). it was also in the process of being turned into "the principle force of production over the last few decades" Lyotard claims. That not enough, "knowlegde in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power," Lyotard observes, would "continue to be, a major -perhaps the major - stake in the worldwide competition for power" (p.5). The author even predicts that nation states might one day "fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory" (p.5). This coming information age is coupled with the rise of multinational corporations whose influence will reduce the power of the state not only with regard to learning but will also weaken the power of the state to decide which direction large scale investments take (p.5 paraphrased).
As the critique of meta-narratives takes on such an importance in Lyotard's 'Report', it is noteworthy that on those first breathless pages Lyotard does not stop once to explain why computerisation was such an unstoppable force. While it would appear to be banal to accuse such a great thinker of falling for technological determinism, the impression might, at least, arise on the side of the reader, that science and technology only follow their natural path to progress, when, of course, there is nothing 'natural' about this as the fetishisation of knowledge as an informational commodity is 'inevitable' only within societies ruled by advanced capitalism and its production relationships (
The Legitimation Problem
In Section 2 Lyotard switches to the problem of legitimisation of knowledge. Here, his starting point is that "scientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knolwedge" and that it always had been in "competition and conflict with, another kind of knowledge, which I will call narrative" (p. 7). The key issue here, which will appear again and again throughout this text, is that a) legitimation is linked to power, in particular to legislative power (p.8)
In Section 3 Lyotard introduces the notion of 'Language Games' as the main method, pointing out that he emphasises "facts of language and in particular their pragmatic aspect" (p.9) This is explained in footnote 28 which is an impressive short reading list of works on semiotics and language. The concept of 'language games' is primarily taken from Wittgenstein's Philosophic Investigations (1953), work that he had done at Cambridge, published posthumously and which led to the conflict with Popper. "What he [Wittgenstein] means by this term is that each of the various categories of utterances 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 of the pieces, in other words, the proper way to move them" p.10). Lyotard makes three basic observations about language games: that "the rules do not carry within themselves their own legitimation, but are the object of a contract [...] between players; that "if there are no rules there is no game" and that "even an infinitesimal modification of one rule alters the nature of the game" as well as that "a "move" or utterance that does not satisfy the rules does not belong to the game" and that "every utterance should be thought of as a "move" in a game" (p.10). What follows from there is that "to speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech acts fall into the domain of a general agonistics" (p.10). The term speech act comes from Searle (see footnote 34) and agonistics played an important role in early Greek philosophy, in particular Heraclitus and the Sophists (see footnote 35).
In Section 4 Lytoard turns to the main models of representation of the world. "Simplifying to the extreme" he admits, there are two main models, that of functionalism and systems theory (Talcott Parsons and later Luhmann in Germany) which defines society as an organic whole, a system which is capable of reproducing itself, and secondly, the "Marxist current", which is based "on the principle of class struggle and dialectics as a duality operating in society" (p.11). Lyotard points out that while in Parson's work the principle of the self-regulating society was still 'optimistic' contemporary German "Systemtheorie" has turned "technocratic, even cynical, not to mention despairing" (p.11). Why? Because "the harmony between the needs and hopes of individuals or groups and the functions guaranteed by the system is now only a secondary component of its functioning" (p.11). German Systemtheorie is essentially a heteronomic theory which gives little or no currency to human agency. "The true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimisation of the global relationship between input and output - in other words, performativity" (p.11). Lyotard goes on to say that "even when its rules are in the process of changing and innovations are occuring [...] what is actually taking place is only an internal readjustment, and its results can be no more than an increase in the system's "viability"" (pp.11-12). Even dysfunctions of the system, strikes and revolts which inspire hope will in the end, according to systems theory, only help to improve the system. Therefore the attributes of 'cynical' or 'despairing' that Lyotard attaches to 'Systemtheorie' (see above). Any "traditional" theory is always in danger of being incorporated into the programming of the whole (p.12). While Marxist inspired 'critical' theories (Lyotard refers to the Frankfurt school in its best days) should in principle be available to avoid this fate because of its antagonistic tendencies and use of dialectics (p.12), a look at the 'balance sheet' after 150 years of class struggle, according to Lyotard, shows that in liberal countries "the struggles and their instruments have been transformed into regulators of the system" (p.13). "Everywhere, the Critique of political economy [...] and its correlate, the critique of alienated society, are used in one way or another as aids in programming the system" (p.13).
It needs to be noted here that 1979 was also the year when Reagan and Thatcher came to power and Germany went through its 'leaden time' turning itself, while fighting Left Wing Terrorism, even under a social democrat such as Helmut Schmidt, into a viable police state with anti-reds laws banning communists from teaching and other civil servants jobs. The French political theory scene saw at the end of the 1970s, as Federic Jameson points out in the Foreword, a McCarthyite backlash against anything remotely Marxist. Lyotard's own accounting which results in said balance sheet (above) is almost necessarily influenced by those shifts in theoretic sentiment. While he acknowledges that "certain minorities, such as the Frankfurt School or the group Socialisme ou barbarie (to which he himself once belonged) preserved and refined the critical model in opposition to this process" those attempts were undermined by the fact that "the social foundation of the principle of division, or class struggle, was blurred to the point of losing all of its radicality" (p.13). What he possible means by that is that the traditional working class was in decline due to tectonic shifts in the economic base now known as Post-Fordism. The traditional working class mass organisations had been deprived of the possibility of all out revolution through Stalin's Socialism in One country doctrine (see Hobsbawm), while the hopes of the New Left had been disappointed by the failure of the 1968 events to turn into a successful revolution (It is doubtable if 1968 was a failure in its overall consequences; however, the non-happening of the revolution was of major consequences on French theory in the years after). While some of the protagonists of the New Left went on to the long march through the institutions, spontaneous left wing demonstrations by autonomous and green groups (as they occured in Germany and Italy, soon also Switzerland) are not granted much importance by Lyotard in his accounting.
Hence the verdict: "We cannot conceal the fact that the critical model in the end lost its theoretical standing and was reduced to the status of a "utopia" or "hope," a token protest raised in the name of man or reason or creativity, or again of some social category - such as the Third World or the students - on which is conferred in extremis the henceforth improbable function of critical subject" (p.13).
Lyotard explains that the purpose of this 'skeletal' reminder had been "to specify the problematic" in which he intended to "frame the question of knowledge in advanced industrial societies" (p.13). In the following sections, such as 6, The Pragmatics of Narrative Knowledge, and 7, The Pragmatics of Scientific Knowledge, Lyotard applies the method of the language games to these different forms of knowledge arriving at the fundamentally unequal relationship between narrative and scientific knowledge. While the incomprehension that (traditional) narrative knowledge displays towards science is "accompanied by a certain tolerance" for the scientist narrative statements are "never subject to argumentation of proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children" (p.27). The symptoms of this unequal relationship, according to Lyotard are "the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilisation" (p.27).
However, when the question of legitimisation arises for science, it resorts to narrative as well (Section 8). "Scientific knowledge cannot know and make known that it is true knowledge without resorting to the other, narrative kind of knowledge, which from its point of view is no knowledge at all" (p.29).
The Foundations of the University Systems in France and Germany
This leads to the very interesting meta-problem of Narratives of the Legitimisation of Knowledge (Section 9) which deals with the underlying premises and assumptions behind educational policies which were foundational for the history of knowledge and its institutions (p.31). Lyotard differentiates between a more politically oriented and a more philosophically oriented model. The first one was derived from the French Revolution and judges science according to its contribution to human freedom. "...the nation as a whole was supposed to win its freedom through the spread of new domains of knowledge to the population" (p.32). This could paradoxically lead to the state as a suming "direct control over the training of the "people" under the name of the "nation" in order to point them toward the path of progress" (p.32). The second model was created by Humboldt considering proposals by Fichte and Schleiermacher for the foundation of the University of Berlin between 1807 and 1810. While on the outside the educational policy seems one of "science for its own sake", as a disinterested pursuit of truth obeying no other rules than those of science itself, its utter legitimation is in "the spiritual and moral training of the nation" (p.32). "How;" Lyotard asks, "can this Bildung-effect result from the disinterested pursuit of learning?" (p.32) The language game of scientific truth is in conflict with language games covering ethical and social aspirations (pp.32-33 abbreviated). Humboldt tries to bridge this gap by the untranslatable German ideal of Bildung - which partly means education, but also the forming of an ethical attitude, a spirit. Underpinned by three principles (p.33) "that of deriving everything from an original principle [...] that of relating everything to an ideal [...] and that of "unifying this principle and this ideal in a single idea" (Lyotard p.33 quoting Humboldt). This should guarantee that the "scientific search for true causes always coincides with the pursuit of just ends in moral and political life" (p.33).
What is included here is that the fathers of the University of Berlin harbour a deep suspicion towards the state with its "narrow nationalism, protectionism, utilitarianism and positivism". "The subject of knowledge is not the people, but the speculative spirit. It is not embodied, as in France after the Revolution, in a State, but in a System. The language game of legitimation is not state-political, but philosophical" (p.33). This 'philosophical' legitimation should guarantee the independence of the university from the (Prussian) militant nation state in the ascent. The resort to the idealistic notion of an abstract 'speculative spirit ', however, could also lead to such a very "unfortunate episode" (p.37) such as Heidegger's inauguration speech as rector of the university of Freiburg-in-Breisgau, where a "narrative of race and work" is inserted into that of the spirit "as a way of legitimating knowledge" (p. 37). How 'unfortunate' is it then that Derrida's poststructuralism was inspired by Heidegger?
Prescient is how Lyotard foresaw that the legitimation of science through performativity (Section 12) would be of profound influence on the future of the university, as can be seen now with the unification of higher education in Europe through the Bologna process. "The desired goal becomes the optimal contribution of higher education to the best performativity of the social system" (p.48). And "... universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals ..." (p. 48); and "In this sense, the "democratic" university (no entrance requirements, little cost to the student and even the society if the price per student is calculated, high enrollment), which was modeled along the principles of emancipationist humanism, today seems to offer little in the way of performance" (p.49). The performativity principle subordinates the institutions of higher learning to the existing powers (p.50, abbreviated) "The moment knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, - the realisation of the Idea [German principle] or the emancipation of men [French principle] - its transmission is no longer the exclusive responsibility of scholars and students" (p.50).
Databanks Replace Professors
Lyotard sketches an outline of a future of learning through computerisation in which "pedagogy would not necessarily suffer" (p.50) The students would have to be taught "how to use the terminals" (p.50) rather than content as a fixed stock of knowledge to be transmitted. By removing the grand narratives of legitimation the "partial replacement of teachers by machines" appears to be no longer intolerable to Lyotard (p.51). Lyotard seems to vie positively the replacement of the criteria of true or false by criteria such as "usefulness", "saleability" and "efficiency" of knowledge (p. 51). 30 years later, in 2009, numerous private universities and colleges for skills training (Fachhochschulen) are witness to the validity of those claims. Lyotard embraces "data banks" as the "Encyclopedia of tomorrow." "They transcend the capacity of each of their users. They are "nature" for postmodern man" (p.51). "It is possible to conceive the world of postmodern knowledge as governed by a game of perfect innovation, in the sense that the data is in principle accessible to any expert: there is no scientific secret. Given equal competence [...] what extra performativity depends on in the final analysis is "imagination" which allows one either to make a new move or change the rules of the game" (p.52). Yet those excited, and potentially exciting claims (were it not for the rather not so small issue of ownership of information and access to knolwegde held by multinational science publishers) lead to claims such as the one that "performativity also sounds the knell for the professor: a professor is no more competent than memory bank networks in transmitting established knowledge, no more competent than interdisciplinary teams in imagining new moves or new games" (p.53).
In the final sections, such as Postmodern Science as the Search for Instabilities, Lyotard arrives at those notions which have typically become associated with postmodernism. Rather than with 'totalities' and deterministic knowledge, postmodern science is concerned with "things such as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterised by incomplete information, "fracta", catastrophes and pragmatic paradoxies" (p.60). This new way of doing science is "theorising its own ecolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, non-rectifiable, and paradoxical" (p. 60). In this new paradigm "consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value" (p.66). Rejecting both the totality of Luhmann's system, and Habermas' Diskurs theory (of communicative action) the "moves playable within it [a language game] must be local, in other words, agreed on by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation" (p.66). This tendency also corresponds to the direction "that the evolution of interaction is currently taking", namely the (ambiguous) tendency towards "temporary contracts" (p. 66) the ambiguity here being of course that flexibility is in the interest of capitalism but it also allows those local players to take control of and responsibility for the language games they are playing. Computerisation could become a "dream" instrument for a society of total control but can also aid groups for discussing "metaprescriptives" (p.67). For that second option to become possible Lyotard proposes to "give the public free access to the memory and data banks" (p. 67) And at the end of the Appendix he suggests to "wage a war on totality" (p.82).
For Lyotard a 'system change' on the level of totality is out of question. But, as science is conceived as an open system, generation of new statements, new moves and new rules in local language games are possible, thus changing the system from within. Lyotard's argument is also a 'move' in the way he describes it, replacing 'totalising' meta-narratives with language games. What this move does, however, is to abolish reality as a reference. This is not a new move but one that science has long been taking, relying on its increased ability of abstraction (cf. Lukacs 1922). In Lyotard's case we can see how this would lead to him making the Les Immateriaux exhibition (Centre Pompidou 1995). A science only guided by its own increased abstraction and improved tools of information processing will ultimately be less and less accountable to society. It is hard to see how language games might fill that gap, as the linguistic turn appears to be another move towards derealization. What it leaves untouched is the fundamental relationship of capitalism, the relationship of capital and labour (cf. also Jameson in the Foreword).
There is an ambivalence in this 'Report' which allows different interpretations to be developed: a critical take on current developments in higher education and the definition of what counts as "knowledge", as we have seen those possibilities diagnosed by Lyotard in an early stage, but now having themselves played out over 30 years; and an affirmative position which picks only on language games and the critique of meta-narratives and which provided the ammunition for a sort of vulgar postmodernism which we can encounter so often today. This fascination with instabilities and localised 'innovation' while at the same time dismissing all theories aiming at any form of 'totality' as 'totalitarian' by nature (Stalinist or worse) in the end tends to a fast forward empiricism and a shallow positivism (not positivist as in scientific positivism but as in 'accepting all that is given') which is intrinsically hostile to any theory.
The (premature) dismissal of metanarratives also plays into the hands of those technocrats administering Bologna medicine to the education system who would love to see costly professors be replaced by data bases (or Wikipedia) and who have already replaced long term contracts (tenure) with flexible short term contracts. This, in the language of the Regulation School (Aglietta, Lipietz) who started publishing at about the same time as Lyotard's 'Report' amounts to a 'recomposition of the class structure' along the lines of a proletarisation of intellectuall labour. It also subordinates universities and art academies to a buerocratic regime of having to make successful applications to state, EU and corporate funding schemes in order to guarantee relatively stable jobs.
There are also a number of other contradictions in this text, some of which Jameson has pointed out in the Foreword. Although the piece carries the loaded term 'postmodern' in its title, a lot of what Lyotard says is much more 'modernist' as he would maybe like the reader to think. In the Appendix on art the postmodern aspect of this theory is explained by Lyotard himself as an 'engine' within modernity. Modernism is not superseded by this type of postmodernism but only once more revolutionised. David Harvey also points this out in The Condition of Postmodernity (1990).The rhetoric strategy applied here is one that is repeated across the board when a 'new' situation is proposed. A 'radical break with the past' has happened, it is posited, therefore the old rules don't apply anymore. For this to work, however, modernity has to be set up as some kind of a straw man: linear, hierarchical, 'totalitarian' by nature, etc., only for the 'new condition' then being able to conveniently surpass those evils. The continued 'revolutions' that science undertakes is maybe nothing new at all but a basic property of modernity. Similarly, the issue discussed at length, that science is not grounded in a transcendental ahistoric 'truth' is already characteristic of modernity - but maybe it has taken the second half of the 20th century to un-essentialise science and make the truthfulness of its statements visible as a result of social negotiations (or language games, as Lyotard would have it).
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the abandonment of society as a totality (echoes of Thatcher's "there is no such thing as a society" come to mind) and the foregrounding of 'language games' - which corresponds with other post-structuralist theories and other post -isms - more than anything lends importance to those classes who are busying themselves with language and meaning. The philosophers and culture theorists, the semiotists and linguists, the literature and culture studies scholars, who were marginalised to the point of near extinction by positivism have been thrown a life-line by the emphasis on narrative and language games to come aboard again of the great cruise ship of science which carries the knowledge class to new continents. Or, to put it less ironically, the knowledge class, as a subsect of all immaterial labourers, has been gaining new importance within the spectrum of professional classes through this conception. Language games concerned with all forms of knowlegde production, and not only science, contribute to progress - not in the totalising sense of course, but in the sense of producing those new statements and new ideas on the level of local sets of rules and exchanges. No wonder than that the knowledge class itself loves such theories. Rather than fostering a broad emancipatory idea of science this gave rise to new funding policies which all focus on 'excellence' in the name of global competition.
Last not least the talk of the end of meta-narratives is, of course, a very grand narrative itself, almost akin to 'the end of history' propagated 10 years after the 'Report'. As 'man' is abolished as subject of history, it seems that blind technological process has taken on that position. This is a meta-narrative which requires at least the same incredulity as those preceding it (such as antagonistic class struggle as the motor of history). For all those reasons it appears to be more fruitful, rather than subscribing to all those theories which are based on 'radical' breaks to look at those forces which have identifiably shaped history in the past and how they have undergone recompositions, restructurings and new configurations. For example, rather than subscribing to the view that the 'immaterial' labour of the knowledge class has become the new most productive force of production, it is important to maintain the only appaerantly simple truth that surplus value is extracted from both immaterial and manual labourers irrespective of what supposedly are the most advanced 'means of production'.