Narrative, Knowledge and Art: On Lyotard's Jewishness

1. All at sea

There is an image that occurs in Lyotard's Driftworks, that of the sea, of the Ship or barque simultanously leaving several shores:

Driftworks in the plural, for the question is not of leaving one shore, but several, simultaneously: what is at work is not one current, pushing and tugging, but different drives and tractions. Nor is just one individual embarking here, or even a collective of individuals, but rather, as in Bosch's ship, a collection of fools, each fool being an exaggerated part of the normal subject, libido cathected in such and such a sector of the body, blocked up in this or that configuration of desire, all these fragments placed next to each other....for an aimless voyage, a collection of fragments impossible to unify for it drifts with the Ship, its very drift giving the advantage of the strongest resonance now to one Trieb-fool, now to another, in accordance with the diversity of the times and sceneries wafted through. Not at all a dislocated body, since there has never been anything but pieces of the body and there will never be a body, this wandering collection being the very affirmation of the non-body. (Lyotard, 1984a: 10)

Even though this is a middle-aged, poetic, Lyotard (1972) it catches the sense of his subsequent work and the imagery that flows through it. And in many ways it is a powerful image for the end of this century - mass migration, travelling cultures, the detritus of old cultures and civilizations, the segments of bodies in cyberspace, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, as boat people in Cambodia or off the coast of West Africa. It is, as he notes, Joyce's Ulysses and, as he might note now, Walcott's Omweros or Neruda's Pacific poems. But Lyotard's Sea is a casting off not in order to "return home, to the self, which will be the model of Hegelian dialectics and of bourgeois socialist thought and praxis in their entirety. Rather the intense stationary drift wherein the fragments clash in Joyce's Ulysses." (1984a: 10)

In order to find this point of chaotic stasis, and not to find the great White Whale, but Ishmael, but an Ishmael who represents the "unpresentable" (1984b: 80), Lyotard leads us through coves and headlands which are occupied by Kant, Hegel, Plato and Aristotle, Freud, Feyerabend, Marx, Descartes, Habermas, Adorno as well as the Nouveaux Philosophes. It is perhaps no accident that the Book for which he is best known, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, is based on lectures he gave to the Conseil des Universites of the government of Quebec, a body which surely confirms closely both to the image of many shores, and a rudderless ship, and also to Lyotard's major definition of the artist as formulating "rules of what will have been done." (1984b: 81) For if the notion of the postmodern is to have any meaningful locus, if the event is to be founded on "activating difference", then surely Quebec is as good ship to be on as anywhere. For the crucial thing about Quebec (and nowhere does Lyotard actually talk about it) is that it is defined by its future anteriority, the event is always a hiatus between what might have been and what might conceivably be. It was here that Pierre Trudeau sent in the Army in 1970 not to quash a rebellion or a riot, but to silence an "apprehended revolution." It is this space where the competing claims of Micmac Indians, assorted immigrants from Ireland, Haiti, Cote d'Ivoire, the Shtetl, Scotland, England, Acadians, as well as `Canadians', Americans and multinational corporations contend with the artistic practice of the Quebecois whose "political party ...inhabits the silence of the signifier, the silence of domination...[which] considers the surface of experience as appearance, mere symptom, and even if it decides not to take power, power is already taken by it to the extent that it repeats this device of appearance and effacement, of theater, of politics as a domaine. Even should `total resolution' be deferred endlessly, this party will be a tragic political party, it will be the negative dialectic..." (1984a: 108-9)

Needless to say, this mode of reasoning has many antecedents and Lyotard could locate himself in an antinomian tradition that goes at least as far back as the Sophists, and would take in the Gnostics, Kabbalists, Jansenists (including Pascal), William Blake, the Muggletonians and probably the Zen Buddhists did he care to actually so locate himself (which he does not). It is a noble tradition of resistance which carries in its tow a large number of writers, artists and musicians. In what way does Lyotard fit in?

Centrally, it is important to recognize that Lyotard's trope in developing his arguments is invariably the Artist, but in producing the Artist he leads us through three important fields - history, psychoanalysis and language, and his guides are, by and large, Kant, Freud and Adorno. This is not to say that they are systematic guides. As with all of his analyses, Lyotard's use of his sources is highly selective. The Kant that he draws on is primarily that of the Third Critique (though partly mediated through Emmanuel Levinas), the Freud that of Moses and Monotheism, The Interpretation of Dreams, and Leonardo, while his Adorno that of the concluding sections of Negative Dialectics. As foils to these, he draws in a large number of other writers (too numerous to discuss here) and across all is a concern with language games as the mechanism (or method) by which he develops his analysis. Unlike other French postmodern writers, Nietzsche only figures aphoristically, while his views on science seem to be influenced by Mandelbrot, Kuhn and Feyerabend. For a moment let us examine the major thrust of this collage.

2. Theory and Narration

The grand narrative has lost its credibility. (1984b: 37)

Lyotard's central target is the closure that metanarratives impose on knowledge. His earlier membership of the important Socialisme ou Barbarie group (which also included Cornelius Castoriadis) had already established an important critique of orthodox Marxism. His signal academic contribution during this period was a popular introduction to Phenomenolgy, published in 1954. He was involved in trade union activities in Algeria, and was active in the Paris upheavals of 1968. At this time his intellectual (and political) position was closer to that of Henri Lefebvre, while his philosophical analysis derived from his mentor Maurice Merleau-Ponty (of whose influence traces still remain). His break with Marxism occurred after 1968 (Driftworks is the direct product of that break). Thus the syndicalist libertarian took on a wider canvas, though still concerned with the theory and practice of action. It might be important to compare the Marxist with the post-Marxist Lyotard in order to develop the continuities/discontinuities of his thought, but this is hardly of significance to this article. Crucially, however, in Lyotard's own words, certain markers from the immediate past stand out:

....certain events which provide a paradoxical, negative occasion for this highly cultivated community sense to reveal itself publicly: Auschwitz, Budapest 1956, May 1968... Each one of these abysses, and others, asks to be explored with precision in its specificity. The fact remains that all of them liberate judgement, that if they are to be felt, judgement must take place without a criterion, and that this feeling becomes in turn a sign of history. (1989: 409)

And thus we start with moments when the Grand Narratives blew themselves up: Hegel/Nietzsche at Auschwitz, Marx in Budapest, Liberal Kapital in Paris. Lyotard sums up his arguments at the end of The Postmodern Condition by offering a new manifesto:

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and appeasement, we can hear the mutterings for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality, let us be witnesses to the unrepresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honour of the name. (1984b: 81-2)

Lyotard places himself in the position to invent a new programme for the state of the world. But because he has to go back in order to go forward, he has to dredge up from the past likely candidates for routes that might have been taken. In something that reads like a classical Popperian scenario, the grizzly enemies of the past are Plato (even worse, Aristotle), Hegel, Marx. The relation of the one to the whole is the clear problem. Its ultimate political resolution is the penitentiary, Auschwitz, the Gulag. "Where you establish the penitentiary is up to you: Kolyma, Dachau, Cologne-Ossendorf." (1989: 140). All the meta-narratives lead to the death camps:

They will be interned in the desmostery, the central prison. They will see no one. The judges will decide what food rations they should get, and these will be brought to them by slaves. When they die, their bodies will be cast outside the city walls and left unburied. (1989: 139)

But the solution to all this is not to create yet another meta-narrative. It is, rather to make a distinction between the narrator and the narratee. In discussing Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, he spells out his theory of "narration without transitivity":

Solzhenitsyn passes on stories as he narrates his story.....The functions of the narrator and of what he is talking about (the narrated) are permutable because his companions (the narrated) are his narrator-heroes. And because it is also possible for the narrator to change places with the people he is addressing, with his companions and us. After all, anyone can tell stories; this is the source of Everyman's strength. Anyone who discusses the Gulag is simply using the book as a reference for his own discourse, and using it to make up another narration, his own narration, and addressing readers who may or may not be the same. (1989: 134)

Of course, it matters not in this account by Lyotard that Solzhenitsyn, like Dostoievsky, had behind all this his own meta-narrative of Slavism and the primacy of the Orthodox church, what matters more is that this lower-level narratology confirms in Lyotard that there exists, somewhere, a swarm of narratives, narratives that are passed on, made up, listened to and acted out; the people do not exist as a subject; it is a mass of thousands of little stories that are futile and serious, that are sometimes attracted together to form bigger stories, and which sometimes disintegrate into drifting elements, but which usually hold together well enough to form what we call the culture of civil society. (1989: 134)

The problem with Plato, Hegel, Marx was that these stories were woven into a whole, a monologic whole to use Bakhtin's language (to which I shall return, as Lyotard never does) in which language games which are contests between tricksters are sealed off. If language is a performance, then in the metanarrative the cards are stacked against most of the actors because, whatever stories they want to say, they are ultimately doomed to act out the script that has been written for them. In this libertarian project the problem, then, is in what ways the major theorists foreclose, but also offer the potential for revealing the stories of that which might have been done. This is no idle project, and derives from Lyotard's days as a phenomenologist. It owes something to Merleau-Ponty, something to Greimas, something to Husserl, a fair amount to Heidegger, a debate with Levi-Strauss on universalisms, but is overlayed with the performance/games language of English, Canadian and American writers such as John Austin, Erving Goffman, Gregory Bateson and Anatol Rappoport. The issue of what stories we tell about ourselves and experiences, how do they connect with other stories, and how do they survive the telling by those who would mastermind ours and everyone else's destinities is surely an important one. The tragedy of Lyotard, as with many other contemporary theorists, is that in posing the question, he lost the sense of the equipment that we may need to develop a strategy. The aesthetic route, taken by many others (Baudelaire, Marcuse, Benjamin) may be the source of his problems.

Continue to next section: Banishing the Poets and Artists: Reifying Scientific Stories

Back to Table of Contents

Welcome~ rationale for these pages | bio and c.v. | table of contents: poetry, fictions, works in progress | Links to interesting sites
This page brought to you by Ioan Davies