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French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Toward the Postmodern by Jean Francois Lyotard, edited by Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts (Philosophy and Literary Theory: Humanity Books) contains a sampling of thirteen of Jean-Francois Lyotard's most representa­tive essays on literature, aesthetics, and the psycho-political dimensions of discourse, spanning the years 1970-1991. These compelling essays selected in consultation with the author and arranged chronologically, give a clear view of Lyotard's trajectory over the past three decades. They will enable Lyotard's English-speaking audience to comprehend the range of his principal preoccupations both before and after his engagement with the debate over the postmodern, and also to appreciate the polemical vigor of his aesthetic critique.

Toward the Postmodern contains several previously untranslated essays and two unpublished recent studies. Edited with a perceptive introduction, a comprehensive current bibliography, and a thorough index, this volume will be an invaluable tool for both students and researchers.

The immediate goal of Toward the Postmodern is to provide English-­speaking readers with the most illuminating examples of Jean-Francois Lyotard's aesthetic critique of language, literature, and discourse. Three constituent purposes were of concern to us in preparing this volume: (1) to allow Lyotard's own writings to reveal, in their diachronical organization, a continuing search for original images and for a new language of basic concepts in the philosophy of literature and aesthetics; (2) to present a series of essays reflecting the distinctive preoccupations crucial to the development of Lyotard's thought-essays that demonstrate a certain thematic progres­sion; (3) to remedy the truncated and somewhat inverted view many English-speaking readers have of Lyotard's intellectual trajectory.

Although several of Lyotard's books and two anthologies are now avail­able in English, both the scope and precise chronology of his philosophical preoccupations remain less than clear.' Surprisingly, perhaps, to some readers, Lyotard's writings from the late 1960s to his most recent reflections are theoretically quite consistent. Punctuating that time frame, the texts that follow-with their fascinating shifts in style and variations in focus-will serve as a guide for reading and interpreting the evolution of Lyotard's innovative and crucial thinking.

To address our second concern, we have selected essays that are intercon­nected thematically. While all of the present writings deal with language, discourse, or literature (and most often all three), the three main sections also represent discrete phases in Lyotard's career. Part One, "The Libidi­nal," featuring a series of articles he wrote in the aftermath of May '68, could be loosely characterized as efforts to wed Marx's political economics with Freud's libido theory. The themes and solutions found in "The Libidinal" also reflect Lyotard's unique approach to the main motivating intellectual concerns of that period. Moreover, because focal points of his distinctive preoccupations appear in this period, and because, as is the case with most philosophers, Lyotard's mature work has been patiently built upon earlier insights, "The Libidinal" entails the ideas elaborated in subsequent sections of Toward the Postmodern. There is thus an intrinsic connection between these early works and those selected for Part Two, "The Pagan," which in turn leads to Lyotard's most recent work, found in Part Three, "The Intractable."

Our third concern as editors is to allow Lyotard's own voice to rectify a commonly accepted misunderstanding in the English-speaking world about his main interests and, consequently, the directions and foci of his career. Most modern French philosophers have been introduced to the English-­speaking public through translations of their earliest foundational works. This is true of Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1956), Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1962), Dufrenne's Phenomenology of Aes­thetic Experience (1973), Foucault's Order of Things (1970), and Derrida's Speech and Phenomena (1973), as well as of a number of others. Lyotard, however, became known through the English translation of a highly special­ized book written on commission for the Quebec government approxi­mately twenty-five years after his first major publication.

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) has, more than any other work by Lyotard to the present day, marked its author as a postmodernist, an heir of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, and a philosopher of science and technology. While The Postmodern Condition may have partially characterized Lyotard's concerns in the early 1980s, it neither provides a complete picture of his activities prior to that period nor does it in any way render intelligible the influences from his earlier works that invariably surface in later writings. Lyotard's writing displays disconcerting shifts in style as well as a propen­sity for witticisms, aphorisms, metalepses. However, despite an appearance of casualness, he takes meticulous care in selecting and utilizing his terms. Far from deploring this constant play of expression as a flight from clarity, we see it as laden with meaning-a testimonial to Lyotard's confidence in the word, whether written or spoken, to ultimately convey intent. His rationale for a style that shuns the sobriety of traditional written exposition is perhaps best explained: "the 'author' would like to have the visible marks of oral teaching be a sort of awkward homage to that so very strange 'profession': one only 'learns philosophy' by learning how to philosophize". Toward the Postmodern will have succeeded if it fur­thers this learning.

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