Review: The Postmodern Condition

The Postmodern Condition
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
Jean-François Lyotard
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984

Review Copyright © 2003 Garret Wilson — 8 February 2003 3:00pm

Jean-François Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, describes postmodernity, which he famously describes as "an incredulity toward metanarratives" (xxiv). To understand that requires understanding Lyotard's terminology.

Lyotard uses language games and liguistic pragmatics from thinkers such as Wittgenstein to describe particular ways of expressing concepts. Scientific denotative knowledge (e.g. "the sky is blue") has used various narrative utterances (stories or explanations) to legitimize itself, such as "knowledge following some path to enlightenment" or "knowledge to emancipate humanity." Most recently, scientific knowledge has used the narrative of perfomativity and effeciency to legitimize its existence.

The problem inherent in systems seeking to make themselves more efficient is that efficiency is gained in stops and starts, in revolutions and retreats, ever-moving and ever-changing. This inevitably invalidates old narratives and brings in new—bringing, I suppose, an "incredulity" of any narrative about the narratives. (Surely The Postmodern Condition is a metanarrative.) In Lyotard's view, though postmodernism is not only a result but a cause of further change. "Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant" (79).