17 July 2010

Lyotard's 'Postmodern Condition' Part 1

"A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at "nodal points" of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be. Or better: one is always located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass. No one, not even the least privileged among us, is ever entirely powerless over the messages that traverse and position him at the post of sender, addressee, or referent" (Lyotard 15).

This quote actually exhibits some legitimate optimism.  The first sentence alone sums up a great deal of our present state; as individuals we realize that this conservative notion of strong individualism, penetrating beyond our cultural influences, is not possible, and that strictly enforcing our own individual interpretations and ideals does not construct a just a society. The second part of that sentence reinforces the latter claim, which I would suggest hints to how our culture is constructed.  We don't live in your classical authoritarian-style system.  There is not one individual or one ruling political party overseeing the creation and execution of legislation, or even one outside of influence, but there may as well be.  Because individually we are not each "an island," we are inherently connected to other people.  How we use those connections to break the cultural mold is the matter at hand. 
When I say that the writing of our rules may as well be under the supervision of one political party I mean that the sphere of knowledge and discourse seems to be extremely limited.  "One can decide that the principal role of knowledge is as an indispensable element in the functioning of society, and act in accordance with that decision, only if one has already decided that society is a giant machine." (Lyotard 13).  I think it is safe to assume that we are already past this axiomatic point, that it has been reified into our social structure that we must use our knowledge toward something.  How one interprets that leads to two options: the notion of "relevant" knowledge for the machine, knowledge that will make it perform better, faster.  Then, the displaced, "critical," as opposed to "functional" knowledge, which exists really only in academia and maybe gets channeled into a coffee shop discussion or something to that effect.  The functional knowledge exists in its own cultural realm and dismisses the critical realm.  Before reading this I had not really made the distinction between the two, but it makes sense.  Lyotard further develops the distinction into Scientific Knowledge and Narrative.  Our culture is Narrative-oriented, in that it relies more so on the power of storytelling, presentation, personality, etc. to win people over, as opposed to Scientific Knowledge which dismisses those aspects and is in favor of empirical data and acceptance of hypotheses and studies from the experts in their field.  The conversation that they have within their own community is a self-sustaining one, and in turn the cultural, Narrative community has followed suit.  "Narratives, as we have seen, determine criteria of competence and/or illustrate how they are to be applied. They thus define what has the right to be said and done in the culture in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture, they are legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do" (23).  And this makes sense.  What southern politician thinks, "Hey, let's listen to the experts, even though their ideas will stifle the economy and make everyone in my jurisdiction vote against me, instead favoring the candidate who can turn shit into gold with his words," legitimately and not sarcastically?  Both the critical and cultural realms exist to sustain themselves, but the critical realm questions the use of the machine, making it perform shoddier than the cultural one.  So those within the cultural, Narrative conversation, having their sense of knowledge shaped with the idea of "progress," not seeing the point in questioning why the machine works the way it does, but how the machine works and how to make it work better, do not see the "usefulness" in the critical, Scientific Knowledge realm; the formed mentality in the two distinctions see the other as harming the achievement of their respective goals.  And this is where dismissive prejudices like "pretentious," "arrogant," "useless", or "ignorant, "greedy," "selfish" etc. come into play (although there definitely are people in both communities who are all of those things).

But how I understand the giant quote at the top, with all of this in mind, is that there is still a way for (re)integration between the two distinctions.  No matter what there will be an overlap of experts in a field that also exists within culture.  In fact there is no way to escape this.  What Lyotard suggests is a more active approach to critical knowledge, integrating into the cultural dialogue from various perspectives.  Everyone is at a different point in culture, always, and there are always connections that people have, be they at work, school, on the internet, etc., and people who are - experts is a bad word for this - but people who have a critical mindset and can portray their ideals in a way that everyone can understand and process, despite the complexities of the subject, and people who do not sound like they are talking down to their audience, since that just breeds an automatic reaction of dismissal, are extremely valuable for a creation of a better society.  The only problem I have with this is that it seems like the system, or narrative methods, are making the critical perspective stoop to their level by marketing everything in their terms.  But really, they have the advantage, so it's more like an infiltration.  I think I just marketed that.

Lyotard elaborates in this very humbling quote:
Drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former's existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter's. Both are composed of sets of statements; the statements are "moves" made by the players within the framework of generally applicable rules; these rules are specific to each particular kind of knowledge, and the "moves" judged to be "good" in one cannot be of the same type as those judged "good" in another, unless it happens that way by chance. (Lyotard 26)

The reason I see optimism in all of this Book (or what I've read so far) is that if we were to use this method more frequently, this "chance" that he talks about, or rather "chances" of an intersection between the two realms would be more frequent.  He says later on that "Lamenting the 'loss of meaning' in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative" (Lyotard 26). There is a loss of meaning, because meaning is just another human construct, and when humans are in different groups of conversation, their respective meanings will differ, and so will their intentions.  The problem is that I've at least assumed, before reading this, that everything was part of the same discussion, which would create a loss of meaning.  But making the distinction helps clarify what may be the crux of the problem.

I guess the main thing that I got out of the first 9 sections of this book was that this really is a government by the people and for the people.  How the people came to be how they are is a different argument, but "the people," the culture at large is conditioned by the cultural conversation and thinks in its logic in order to sustain itself.  This is why all the critical voices are seen as dangerous and pushed off to the fringe - because they are overtly against the central narrative.  And in a way, as Lyotard is suggesting, "The question of the State becomes intimately entwined with that of scientific knowledge" (31). In order for the economy to work better, produce more efficiently, it needs government out of the way, in order to exploit resources all over the globe to make it work more efficiently.  Things like minimum wage, emission caps, laws, just get in the way of gaining capital.  The machine has taken over the humans and if it hasn't already gotten to the point of pulling us along its path, it is well on the way to.

What he suggests we need is a binding force between all the areas of research, to integrate all of humanity back on a similar page, aimed toward preserving our humanity instead of submitting to the forces of some sort of automatic machinery, or as I like to think of it, reification run amok, working on its own abstractions as references to break up the inherent dissention within its workings.  "Knowledge first finds legitimacy within itself, and it is knowledge that is entitled to say what the State and what Society are" (34). In order to save critical knowledge (and the State, which also works on complex issues that don't fit nicely and presentably into the Narrative structure), we need integration into the cultural dialogue.  It is the only means of saving it, and saving the idea that government fights to preserve our sense of humanity, distinguishing it from machinery.  The sole purpose of knowledge is not to act with that knowledge toward some cultural idea of "progress."  It functions on many levels and may hold aspects that we have never experienced but in order to rescue that notion, oddly enough, action, discussion, integration is required.  Something still makes me uncomfortable with the idea of fighting fire with fire, though.  Maybe the rest of the book will shed some light on that.

Works Cited:
Lyotard, Jean Francois.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984

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