The Postmodern Condition:

A Report on Knowledge

Anthropology Independent Studies
Prof. S. Errington
Copyright © 1997 B. A. Collie Collier


Jean-Francois Lyotard's book is a fascinating discussion of postmodernism. Unfortunately I had the strong feeling, upon reading it, that I was missing a great deal. Many of his examples are based on sociological or mathematical theories I am not familiar with. I cannot confidently say I understand his writings completely; nevertheless I will attempt to lay out the basics of what I believe he was postulating.

Lyotard initially sets forth some of the premises of modernism. He categorizes the search for knowledge into two camps: those who search for knowledge in order to increase the dignity and freedom of man (knowledge in the service of the subject), and those who search for knowledge for its own sake (knowledge as the subject). He explains how both these forms of thought contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, such as the assumptions that science must be a continuous, ever-upwards path of enlightenment as new truths are uncovered (or positivism), and that there is one great, all-encompassing truth waiting out there to be found -- a sort of essentialization of truth, if you will.

The 'language game' as initially used by modernism is explicated, with its need to smoothly incorporate the premise of agonistics, and its definitions of and by 'truth.' Lyotard also postulates a 'narrative' and a 'scientific' discourse. Narrative discourse contains within itself its own self-legitimization and justification, as well as maintenance of the social bond. It is supposedly a narrative of preservation of one's past, but by its extremely individualistically created nature it of necessity has no true historicity. It is, in a sense, a discourse that allows one to forget. The discourse of science, on the other hand, by its definition of 'truth' can never legitimize itself, and must turn to the narrative discourse for justification and legitimization. On the other hand, it was initially a tightly defined and rigidly maintainted form of dialogue, demanding constant proofs and re-proofs in order to maintain the veracity of its discourse, and admitting no contradictions.

Lyotard then goes on to demonstrate how scientific positivism and essentialization were shown to be fallacious. It is shortly after the societal despair and disillusionment with science occasioned by this discovery that he situates the beginnings of post-modernism. He notes a change within the language games, a sort of mixing of the discourses that provoked a revitalizing effect in both. Higher education is an example of this. According to Lyotard a 'crisis' in scientific knowledge has come into being, due to the delegitimizing effects of the demand for legitimation. Universities have lost their function of speculative legitimation within the sciences, and transmit only established knowledge rather than performing research. The hard borders of the disciplines have begun to blur; the age of the professor is ending. Knowledge is easily available, and specialization to individual needs through the years is a useful and societally beneficial application of the increase in that availability. A particular, needed bit of learning can be taken in a small chunk, administered by a machine as well as by another human. What is important now is not the knowledge, per se, but what is done with it; not the library itself but the imagination and innovation that is applied to the information contained therein.

To Lyotard this is the postmodern world. The legitimation of the lost narrative is no longer mourned. Instead of being reduced to barbarity (as was previously believed would happen), people turn for legitimation to their own linguistic practice and communicational interaction. Lyotard makes an interesting point in this area; he notes the unification of language games with the societal pursuit of power. Knowledge is power; for knowledge creates technology, and now technology is seen not as the means to truth, but to an increase of power. Through this argument he neatly ties together some of both the positions of Barthes and Foucault, although I suspect they would not completely agree with his conclusions.

Most notably, the scientific discourse has been radically re-thought. It now admits for a plurality of languages, and recognizes itself as 'pragmatic' -- as a language game that accepts new "moves" or propositions. Furthermore, this allows different kinds of progress in knowledge: one can not only suggest new moves, but also attempt to invent new rules, creating a localized language game within that of the scientific discourse. Where a steady increase in 'known truths' had been previously postulated, Lyotard now noted what he calls 'catastrophe theory'; namely that scientific discourse is now theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical -- it produces not the known so much as the unknown. The legitimization of this scientific discourse is not so much that of maximization of performance, but rather is found in paralogy -- it generates ideas.


Last Updated: Wed, August 5, 1997