Narrative, Knowledge and Art: On Lyotard's Jewishness

Part II

3. Banishing the Poets and Artists: Reifying Scientific Stories

Written across Lyotard's work is a debate with the Jews. (Is this a legacy from the Socialisme ou Barbarie days? Freud, Levinas, Adorno, Benjamin, Levi-Strauss replacing Trotsky? Who will know? Need we know? But we do know that Lyotard is not Jewish). It is clear, however that, in finding the artist as the metaphor for the postmodernist revolution he finds Jewish authors very seductive, though in doing so he uses Kant as his guide. The key is Freud, in part because of his debate with the Greeks but also because of his negotiation with patriarchy. (And Jews have for several millennia been debating the issue of representation: no graven images of any likeness in the heavens above or the earth beneath, but the super-ordinate importance of the text, and, as Freud recognized, the death of the father, the castration of Moses as the text was shattered before the reality of Molloch). Freud, as Isaac Deutscher would have remarked, was the non-Jewish Jew, or, as Lyotard puts it,

Freud is truly the Jew who has lost his faith; he tries to be the father, to construct the father....[He] departs from Judaism in that the word (the truth) is for him no longer an object to be listened to, but an object to be produced (constructed): writing the book, knowing. He remains loyal to Judaism in that what he wants to construct is still a word, in that for him the truth can only be sought only in the manifestation of a text, can only be heard in words. (1989: 106-7)

Thus Freud is the storyteller who is seduced by science, the man who came so close to killing off the father, only to find that his patricide had a scientistic rationale. Freud has to provide an empirical (biological) basis for understanding relationships. He can tell stories well, connecting the Greek, the Roman, the Hebrew, the German, but somehow his science overtook the storytelling. All of this may be evident, but Lyotard's way of telling his story of Freud is instructive. The central story is obviously the connection between Oedipus and Moses. In Lyotard's version, there are three characters - Moses, Oedipus and Hamlet - a wonderful and teasing trinity, all of whom, in one way or another, appear in Freud's writings. Moses, the Egyptian prince, claims a people as his own, and introduces them to a form of magic which compels them to worship an invisible God whom only he has seen from behind. His only gift to his people is a text (Moses is killed off precisely because he destroyed the first text). God gives no sign and no means of fulfilment. He chooses the Jewish people, not as his heir or the bearer of his mandate, but as his allocutor: he gives them his word in the sense that he addresses them. What is chosen is not a fulfilment, a place, or an earthly origin, but a discursive position. God gives nothing; he gives his people something to listen to. (1989: 97)

What ensues is a struggle between the invisible God/Moses, his sons, and the visible mother. The invisible God does not expect a search for truth or knowledge, or an interpretation of meaning. "Knowledge is a temptation; righteous relationship to the law is an obligation to reply by doing" (1989: 99) The son's desire for the mother, his guilty acting-out of his father's death, are all aspects of a vertiginous search for action. But it is a practice which is not visual - except in dreams. And these dreams, Lyotard argues in the case of Freud, were a struggle against the visual. In one of his dreams, Freud tears out images from a picture-book that his father had left. Lyotard, contrary to other interpretations which saw this as an image of the mother, as the "the transgression of Oedipus", instead takes the images literally: Freud always looked on art, and on Italy, as something that was forbidden to him. And does transgression `reveal' a wish? Is it not, rather, a manifestation of wishes as something concealed, as something whose origins are concealed? Where was the transgression, if he was given the book in order to destroy it? His father ordered that nothing should remain of the plates. Freud will try to speak the language of truth, which stands in the corner between the word-axis and its figure-axis. That position has to be constantly won. Freud does not conquer it in the face of a rich phantasy life, but in the face of a lack of images...The figure formations were torn out; their leaves were torn out and they withered. (1989: 105)

In this, the Freud who came so close to seeing through the mythology of Judaism is sucked back into it. The father wins and the polysemy which Freud had invoked by introducing the pagan gods, is foreclosed in the command of the father. The man who, through the interpretation of dreams, would be the artist, sacrifices art for science.

But why art and what art? The answer to this is wrapped up in the idea that the postmodern moment is one in which the "unpresentable" is present in the presentation. For what Lyotard despises most of all is not totalitizing theory but theorizing itself. Art, to work and to be communicated, must be steeped in the good childhood of minimal thought" (1989: 238) He goes on, quoting with approval Kant's Third Critique,

We have to imagine a comparison which does not compare, a transition from my appreciation to yours without any mediation, without any tertium comparationis, a transition which is possible because it is immediate. And the field of the visible provides the model for this silent exchange because it is made up of an implicit toing and froing between this and that, here and there, now and then, you and me. As with the visible, the silent exchange demanded by the beautiful never ends, because it can never be concluded. it is merely a promise of unanimity...Art for art's sake? No, there is no for, because there is no finality, and no fulfilment. Merely the prodigious power of presentations. (1989: 239)

Art, almost any art, is the "freeplay between the imagination and the understanding. Am I seeing, or am I dreaming? Hallucinating, or sharing? My madness, or our meaning?" (1989: 239) Thus the fascination with Freud, and, even more so, with Jewish artsits (they should not exist, should they?) The Jewish artist tempts Providence. In discussing the work of Barnett Newman, Lyotard notes that "For Newman, creation is not an act performed by someone; it what happens (this) in the midst of the indeterminate" (1989: 243). and, further, "The message `speaks' of nothing: it emanates from no one. It is not Newman who is speaking, or who is using paiting to show us something. The message (the painting) is the messenger; it `says': `Here I am,'in other words, `I am yours' or `Be mine.'" (1989: 242) The work of art is the Word which was before anything else was. If this is a beginning, in the work of art it is always a new beginning, a flash which is always there and never there. The problem is further taken up with Adorno in discussing Auschwitz, though, as it were, from the other end. If in art, the word is always being re-made, if it is the presentation for Continuous Revolution, then what Lyotard has to confront in Auschwitz is Adorno's statements from the conclusion of Negative Dialectics:

After Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high, not even a theological one, that has any right unless it underwent a transformation. If death were that absolute which philosophy tried in vain to conjure positively, everything is nothing: all that we think, too, is thought into the void. In the camps death has a novel horror; since Auschwitz, fearing death means fearing worse than death. (Adorno, 1973: 367, 371)

As Lyotard comments, "This question of the end, death, and the aim of speculative dialectics, is also necessarily that of the ends of man, of `our' ends" (1989: 363). But it is interesting that here Lyotard does not engage in metaphysics (as he surely does in his aesthetic writing) but to convert Adorno's dialectic at a standstill into phrase-games. There is no talk of Auschwitz as a `performance'. Instead he disputes the logic of Adorno's aphorisms, the linking of `Auschwitz' with `we'.

To link is to disjoin. The calm completeness of the infinity actu at rest within a phrase becomes discontinous...The one (a phrase) is not first, nor last, nor both; it is among the others which are within it. The absolutely other is a phrase which designates the incommensurability between the universe of the prescriptive phrase (request) and the universes of the descriptive phrases which take it as their referent. `Auschwitz' is an abhorrent model for this incommensurability.... (1989: 385)

By introducing the phrase-games, Lyotard does not wish to ignore `Auschwitz' as a major event that throws into question all of the theorizing that went before. Rather, he wants to preserve that sense of finality in order to return to the ongoing beginnings. He wants to "`invent' rules for the linking of phrases; and with a rule, in turn, to link on a phrase..." (1989: 386). Unlike Adorno, who argued that, After Auschwitz, poetry was no longer possible, Lyotard wants to keep the door open to more poetry.

Thus, with a little bit of Kant here, some Adorno there and dollops of "phrase-games", Lyotard puts us in the paradox that Marcuse left us some years before. If we cannot have revolution, why not have art? "When we have been abandoned by meaning, the artist has a proffessional duty to bear witness that there is, to respond to the order to be. The painting becomes evidence, and it it fitting that it should not offer anything that has to be deciphered, still less interpreted" (1989: 248). But what Marcuse's flawed project directed us towards was art and artists as a community. Ultimately, Lyotard's aesthetic dimension is totally an abstraction. The `Jews' are abstractions, the `artists' are abstractions, `history' and `science' are abstractions. The space, the performance, that Lyotard wants us to inhabit, is a pure figment of his imagination. If there is a postmodern space (and, as I will show in the conclusion, there is) Lyotard has betrayed it. The search for a world in which the resistance to Kapital (a terms he uses regularily in his earlier writings, but rarely in the 1980s) is sloughed off to a linguistic game in which the act, any act, is supreme against any theoretical encounter with action or any of its meanings.

Because, in the end, Lyotard is victim of the very procedures he tried to escape from. The issue, of course, is that in trying to construct a theory of the everyday as not being beholden to the abstractions of philosophers, he has no tools, except those of the philosopher, for establishing a stance. The tortuous exclusion of the sweep of philosophy by seeing everything as closure leads him to find `practices' which do not allow closure. `Art' is a clear discovery, but it as much an abstraction as much as anything else. The artists that he chooses to discuss - Duchamp, Malevitch, Newman, Valerio Adami - are only there because they `illustrate' his debates with Freud. He tells us nothing about them, their works, except by philosophical reference. His best line, on any painter, is on Newman:

Chaos threatens, but the flash of the tzimtzum, the zip, takes place, divides the shadows, breaks down the light into colours like a prism, and arranges them across the surface like a universe. Newman said that he was primarily a draughtsman. There is something holy about the line itself. (1989: 246)

So art is linear! The author who would persuade us of non-linearity in philosophy, is drawn to linearity in art ("A strong, thick, ample line" in another essay on Adami, 1989: 231). But the faces must always be turned away (on Adami, "Turn Away in order to be seen," 1989: 228; "the form figure is that which supports the visible without being seen, its nervure," on Picasso, 1984a: 63).

So beauty or the sublime is that which is hidden, but hidden in such a way that its linearity confirms our desire. It's the Jewish metaphor again, with the forbidden image of the Other who is God, Moses, Mother in one. If Lyotard strives to understand the image, he can only find images which conform to his own stereotypic vision of which images matter. Although he invokes Levi-Strauss on the totem, he does not seem ever to have seen a totem. The discourse on art that he invites is not only culture-bound, but text-bound. Freud is the father that Lyotard would like to have been. Ah! those dreams of coming to terms with the images that father wanted destroyed.....

This is not a critique, but rather a sublimation. Even when he ventures to deal with cinema, he has no films worth talking of, but a discourse (if that's the word) about how cinema does not measure up to the idea of a performative act but rather that of repetition. "Cinematic movements generally follow the figure of return, that is, of the repetition and propagation of sameness...All endings are happy endings, just by being endings [but did not Shoah or Berlin Alexanderplatz go on for nine hours?], for even if a film finishes with a murder, this too can serve as a final resolution of dissonance" (1989: 173) This does sound as absurd as the early Adorno on Jazz or the Mass Media. Otherwise, Lyotard's grasp of the newer media is tied up with his perception of the modern. His analogies are all with theatre and painting, and his theorists, with the exception of Christian Metz, are those who never saw a film. (And "Abstract cinema, like abstract painting, in rendering the support opaque reverses the arrangement, mking the client a victim. It is the same again though differently in the almost imperceptible movements of No Theatre." 1989: 179)

At the end of The Postmodern Condition the Lyotard of Socialisme ou Barbarie reappears as the protagonist of freedom in cyberspace. It is a call which has been echoed by anarchists, liberal democrats, nihilists, narodniki everywhere.

[computerization]...could become the "dream" instrument to include knowledge itself and governed exclusively by the performativity principle. In that case, it would inevitably involve the use of terror. But it could also aid groups discussing metaprescriptives by supplying them with the information they usually lack for making knowledge decisions. The line to follow for computerization to take the second of these two paths is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks. Language games would then be games of perfect information at any given moment...This sketches the outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown. (1984b: 67)

It is, of course, an illusionary vision, not because it bears the marks of a demented utopia, but because Lyotard, as in all of his other writings (and, presumably, his life as an academic and political organizer) never thought about Kapital except as an abstraction. The illusion of the artist as conveying the reality principle is now translated to lonely activisits typing out messages (probably in code) to unknowns throughout the world on their IBM Aptivas. The plan will not work because Kapital is not simply a Moloch or Baal to be overcome, but part of a much wider set of social structures and processes. And that is a sociological issue, and Lyotard is not a sociologist.

4. Reconstructing Postmodernism

The problem with Lyotard is that in privileging culture as the postmodern condition, he ultimately abdicates any concern either with social structures or with moral regulation. That culture is an issue is not in question. Zygmunt Bauman, in his treck through the postmodern condition, puts the issue squarely as a situation embedded in the Market and in the growth of non-consumer repression. The `seduction' of the market and the `repression' of panoptical power between them provide a fundamental shift in the ways that knowledge is conceived. If the market defines all cultural activity in consumerist terms, it is also tolerant of any kind of intellectual debate in so far as that it can be marketed (Bauman, 1992: 94-101). Thus the intellectual who trades in ideas has infinite freedom to do or say as he/her thinks, but nobody listens unless it can be proved that it works. Habermas's `legitimation crisis' can be seen as the crisis of the intellectuals, the artists, the authors. They can write/paint/design what they like, but ultimately their legitimation is themselves against the massive appropriation by the market and the repressive apparatus of what they are doing. If, in the modernist world, the state, Kapital, tradition, the civilizing process (of Norbert Elias) colluded in providing a comfortable niche within which the definitions of knowledge could be seen as legimiated, in the postmodern world everything is up for grabs. Once the market takes over, there is not only freedom to say/write/paint/film what you like, but also that no-one is behind you if you do, unless you can sell it to Hollywood or the nearest Armani agent. Everything is pigeonholed: Culture and History are Heritage; Knowledge is Market Relevant Information; Ethnicity is Multicultural Packaging, and so on. It is to this world that Lyotard introduces us, but, in a curious way, leaves unspecified for us, whose profession is to act as cultural brokers and producers. Bauman puts the issue squarely. Culture is one area of social life which is defined (cut out) in such a way as to reassert the social function claimed by intellectuals. One cannot even explain the meaning of the concept without reference to human `incompleteness', to the need of teachers and, in general, of `people in the know' to make up for this incompleteness, and to a vision of society as a continuous `teach-in' session. The idea of culture, in other words, establishes knowledge in the role of power, and simultaneously supplies legitimation of such power...Whatever their other ambitions, modern intellectuals always saw culture as their own private property; they made it, they even gave it a name. Expropriation of this this particular plot hurts most...What not so much an expropriation, but that intellectuals are not invited to stand at the helm of this breath-taking expansion. instead it is gallery-owners, publishers, TV managers and other `capitalists' or `bureaucrats' who are in control. The idea has been wrested out of the intellectual heads abd in a truly sourcerer's apprentice's manner, put to action in which the sages have no power. (1992: 99-100)

The search for the artist as the kernel of the postmodern condition is, in this context, rather odd, but hardly novel. From Shelley's Poets as the Unacknowledged legislators of the World through to the poets bursting like bombs in Spain, the belief in the artist as the vector for the transformation is one of the great romantic drives of all society since the Enlightenment.

Inasmuch as art preserves, with the promise of happiness, the memory of the goals that failed, it can enter, as a "regulative idea," the desperate struggle for changing the world. Against all fetishism of the productive forces, against the continued enslavement of individuals by the objective conditions (which remain those of domination), art represents the ultimte goal of all revolutions: the freedom and happiness of the individual. (Marcuse, 1978: 69)

Thus Marcuse, at the end of another career which engaged with Freud, Adorno, Marx, Hegel and Kant, wrestles with the aesthetic as the bearer of a noumenous tradition which exists in spite of the phenomenal reality which called it into being, and yet which might bring with it the promise of a new phenomenal reality. Of course, there has been a particular fragmentation in the idea of the aesthetic between Marcuse and Lyotard. The differences hinge on the uses of history. For Marcuse aesthetical form, autonomy and truth are interrelated. Art is committed to a perception of the world which takes as its point-of-departure alienation as a functional existence and performance in society and commits itself to an emanciption of sensibility, imagination and reason. It stands under the law of the given while transgressing and contradicting it. Thus for Marcuse, the promise of the liberating potential of art is that it bears in its creativity a memory of lived communities, and the anguish of mimesis as the "representation through estrangement, subversion of consciousness. Experience is intensified to the breaking point; the world appears as it does for Lear and Antony, Berenice, Michael Kholhaas, Woyzeck, as it does for the lovers of all times. They experience the world demystified." (Marcuse, 1978: 45) With Marcuse the noumenous is always present as part of the OTHER Geist, that trinity of aesthetic form, autonomy and truth which draws us to other than pure relativity. This is an historical commitment, where the purpose of art is to pull us towards the idea of what we know, on what bases are our certainties. If the artist in the service of the revolution seems like a chimera (what artist? what revolution?), at least we can begin to debate the issues.

With Lyotard the debate is with the nebulous sublime. His metaphors are visual. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images." Transgressing the Judaic commandment is the core of his definition of the modern. "I shall call modern the art which devotes its `little technical expertise (son `petit technique'), as Diderot used to say, that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible: that is what is at stake in modern painting" (Lyotard, 1984b: 78). This is a curious definition of modernism, as if he set up the Jewish injunction in order only to shoot it down: modernism is Jewish because Jews finally discovered that they could construct graven images without anyone feeling guilty. But what about film, or fiction, or the genuflecting before the Torah? Or the search for the numenous through the Quabllah? What if, as John Berger has been trying to persuade us for a long time, the images, the language games, the filming, the writing are all simply other ways of storytelling? The issues relate to what stories we are telling for whom.

And there is more than this. Both Lyotard and Marcuse are ultimately caught up in the same game plan, though with nuanced differences. Both keep to the notion of revolution as the backdrop master-narrative. The Artist as Saviour becomes the common solution to failed utopias, because the Artist transgresses either by "standing under the law of the given while transgressing this law" (Marcuse) or by "working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done" (Lyotard). The Artist carries within his or her work the liberating potential of the anarchic. Only a partial truth, at best. Too much deconstrctionalist argument (and counter-argument) has attended this topic since Marcuse wrote for us to even begin to convey the serious problems that arise if art and creativity alone are taken as the templates for a postmodern consciousness. But what is absent, of course, is the concern that the world within which these discussions take place is still one within which the power of meta-narratives continue to dominate the fabric of everyday life. What is missing in Lyotard's writing (and was always missing in Marcuse, in spite of One Dimentional Man) is the relationship between the very tangible negotiating of the everyday in the context of the social structures that emerge within contemporary society. If abstract Kapital has to be given flesh and bones, it surely exists in multi-national corporations, the international money markets, the stock and bond traders, the World Bank, the various international trading conglomerates and the metanarratives that they spin about the significance of the Market as the core of freedom, democracy, well-being. Within this spectrum of control and power, against it, and within it, we negotiate our spaces.

In this context, the form of ludic narcissism which is at the heart of Lyotard's project, as with much deconstructionist rhetoric, does little more than maintain the ongoing system in its privilege of power and knowledge. Two alternative strategies suggest themselves. The first derives from Mikhail Bakhtin, the second from Zygmunt Bauman. If we start with Bauman, it is clear that postmodernity represents both an epistemic rupture with certain grand narratives (which themselves are embedded in particular forms of social structure), but that certain people who claim the sobriquet of being postmodern are themselves ideologues of something that they wish to term `postmodernity.' The ideology of postmodernity has been criticized acutely by Fredric Jameson and David Harvey (see, in particular, Jameson, and , and Harvey where the distinctions are clearly made). But the distinctions are frequently elided or blurred. The real conditions of postmodernity are not that the Berlin Wall collapsed or that capitalism is triumphant, but that the deus ex machinae do not exist any more (nor have they since Nietschze and Sade put the kybosh on the whole sorry state of Enlightenment rhetoric). The `modernist' era since then has been playing out both a social structural change and one in which what is considered knowledge has been transformed. For 200 years humanity has been subjected to a mechanistic conception of production which has simultaneously been the route to mass destruction. The benefits that a very few people acquire are overweighed by the increasing misery of the rest of humanity. The real change of the past two decades is that previously people repeatedly hoped that there could be a total reconstruction of the system, that the world could be re-made in a new image to conform more to the sense of what it might have been. (That is the message that comes through the major social thinkers, from Marx to Durkheim to Weber and even to Parsons). No longer is that true. The relentless logic of mechanization, commodity, money has blown out the universal utopias. In this Lyotard is clearly correct. Those totalistic schemas are clearly dead. But with their death we will do none of us any good if we ground our futures in will-o-the-wisp romanticisms about the artist or the nebulous nightly sourjourns of the internetters.

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