The Postmodern Condition
Cover of the French edition
|Original title||La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir|
|Translator||Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi|
|Subject||Postmodern culture, technology, epistemology|
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (French: La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir) is a 1979 book by Jean-François Lyotard, in which he analyzes the notion of knowledge in postmodern society as the end of 'grand narratives' or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity. The book introduced the term 'postmodernism', which was previously only used by art critics, into philosophy, with the following quotation: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives".
Short but influential, the book was originally written as a report on the influence of technology in exact sciences, commissioned by the Conseil des universités du Québec. Lyotard later admitted that he had a 'less than limited' knowledge of the science he was to write about, and to compensate for this knowledge, he 'made stories up' and referred to a number of books that he hadn't actually read. In retrospect, he called it 'a parody' and 'simply the worst of all my books'.
Among the metanarratives criticized by Lyotard are reductionism and teleological notions of human history such as those of the Enlightenment and Marxism. These have become untenable, according to Lyotard, by technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media and computer science. Techniques such as artificial intelligence and machine translation show a shift to linguistic and symbolic production as central elements of the postindustrial economy and the related postmodern culture, which had risen at the end of the 1950s after the reconstruction of western Europe. The result is a plurality of language-games (a term coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein:67), of different types of argument. At the same time, the goal of truth in science is replaced by "performativity" and efficiency in the service of capital or the state, and science produces paradoxical results such as chaos theory, all of which undermine science's grand narrative.
Lyotard professes a preference for this plurality of small narratives that compete with each other, replacing the totalitarianism of grand narratives. For this reason, The Postmodern Condition has been criticized as an excuse for unbounded relativism. Lyotard does suggest that there is an objective truth, however he claims it to be beyond the limits of human understanding. In other words, there is no certainty of ideas, only better or worse interpretations.
- Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir. Paris: Minuit.
- Anderson, Perry (1998). The Origins of Postmodernity. London/New York: Verso, pp. 24–27.
- Quotation from the 1984 (reprint 1997) English translation by Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press.
- Bruneault, Frédérick (Autumn 2004). "Savoir scientifique et légitimation", Revue PHARES vol. 5.
- Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1979). "Les problèmes du savoir dans les sociétés industrielles les plus développées". Quebec: Conseil des Universités. Original report available online at: http://www.cse.gouv.qc.ca/FR/Publications_CUniv/