24 July 2010

Lyotard's 'Postmodern Condition' Part 2

"The social bond is linguistic, but is not woven with a single thread. It is a fabric formed by the intersection of at least two (and in reality an indeterminate number) of language games, obeying different rules" (Lyotard 40).

"New languages are added to the old ones, forming suburbs of the old town" (Lyotard 40-41).

"We may form a pessimistic impression of this splintering: nobody speaks all of those languages, they have no universal metalanguage, the project of the system-subject is a failure, the goal of emancipation has nothing to do with science, we are all stuck in the positivism of this or that discipline of learning, the learned scholars have turned into scientists, the diminished tasks of research have become compartmentalized and no one can master them all.  Speculative or humanistic philosophy is forced to relinquish its legitimation duties, which explains why philosophy is facing a crisis wherever it persists in arrogating such functions and is reduced to the study of systems of logic or the history of ideas where it has been realistic enough to surrender them" (Lyotard 41).

Just as, in the previous section under summary and analysis, we saw that language is split into different forms, Scientific and Narrative more specifically.  Philosophy also suffers from the same problem.  And the reason for this can be seen from the rise of capitalism, with its focus on the individual instead of the collective.  With the rise and legitimation of capitalism, which "has eliminated the communist alternative and valorized the individual enjoyment of goods and services," we loose any hope of retaining a grand narrative of our culture, instead having only fractured, individual, self-serving narratives (Lyotard 38).  In postmodernism we are already past the point of caring that our social bond, comprised of language and philosophy, has been so fragmented and alienated.  People are more willing to accept the condition of having to be individuals, having to rely on their small community of likeminded people than to accept any of the long lost or presently unapparent connections that bind or have bound us as humans in the past.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union (and some would say even before this, when the Soviet Union chose to use authoritarianism and alienate Marxism from itself), capitalism became the overarching singular means of interpreting reality, and that notion has become all encompassing.  And since capitalism's intentions need efficiency, productiveness, and individuality to become more legitimate, it needs to further fragment and categorize the scientific knowledge and language so that its resistance is less unifying and easier to handle and dismiss.  "Most people have lost the nostalgia for the lost narrative. It in no way follows that they are reduced to barbarity. What saves them from it is their knowledge that legitimation can only spring from their own linguistic practice and communicational interaction.  Science 'smiling into its beard' at every other belief has taught them the harsh austerity of realism" (Lyotard 41).  Basically, science, which is capable of much more, is only seen under the jurisdiction of capitalism and must compromise its resources to the overarching system's behest.

The form of thought that capitalism chooses to work under is logic.  The reason Lyotard points this out is because he wants to prove the problems with axioms, how short cuts in thought and things we take as common sense could easily contain paradoxes.  "Since it is possible to generalize this situation, it must be accepted that all formal systems have internal limitations. This applies to logic: the metalanguage it uses to describe an artificial (axiomatic) language is 'natural' or 'everyday' language; that language is universal, since all other languages can be translated into it, but it is not consistent with respect to negation—it allows the formation of paradoxes" (Lyotard 43).  Under logic, which scientific thought also works, paradoxes within that community get passed off as legitimate as well.  The point, when scientific knowledge works under capitalism, is not to find truth, but to function efficiently and toward benefitting the system.  Without funding towards scientific research, no research would be able to get done within the system.  So it is easy to see how the selective nature of capital can come into play with what it feels is scientifically relevant towards maintaining the system.  "No money, no proof—and that means no verification of statements and no truth. The games of scientific language become the games of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. An equation between wealth, efficiency, and truth is thus established" (Lyotard 45).  Information, knowledge is then just another commodity.

So the rise of technology, the technological age as a further extension of the industrial revolution, really has more to say about the success of capitalism than the benefits of science.  Science was just a tool used to legitimate capitalism and spread its doctrines.  "It was more the desire for wealth than the desire for knowledge that initially forced upon technology the imperative of performance improvement and product realization. The 'organic' connection between technology and profit preceded its union with science. Technology became important to contemporary knowledge only through the mediation of a generalized spirit of performativity" (Lyotard 45).  Even though Scientific and Cultural knowledge/language are seen as distinct, both are still subordinated by capital, compartmentalized to ensure subservience.  And the cultural forces, which aim to legitimate themselves, while creating opportunities through computers to fight against the system and reconnect with people through the medium, also maintain themselves to a higher degree through, not only by forcing people to connect through its own tools, but also through the use of data storage to create an even more definite presence of itself.  Ultimately what all of this looks towards is the eradication of anything seen as irrelevant to, or slowing down the efficiency of the system, which includes certain areas of scientific or critical research.  "To the extent that learning is translatable into computer language and the traditional teacher is replaceable by memory banks, didactics can be entrusted to machines linking traditional memory banks (libraries, etc.) and computer data banks to intelligent terminals placed at the students' disposal" (Lyotard 50).

It's no wonder that Humanities and the Arts in the University are looked at with such disdain and irrelevance.  These fields can't provide for a family, they don't add anything beneficial towards our society, or so we are led to believe.  I myself have seen the axiom of this when at a college party the summer after I graduated where a bunch of engineering majors or graduates were and one kid that I had never met divulged to the room, "Hey, there are a bunch of B.A.s out on the porch," he continued after we weren't sure what he was talking about, "and by B.A. I mean Bachelor of Arts."  I wound up talking to the kid about politics for a portion of the night after telling him that I was one as well.  And for the most part, despite our political differences and complete lack of similar viewpoints we were able to hold a good and productive conversation that ended with the two of us able to respect and understand one another, which I think shows how informal settings, genuine communication without pretension, basically appealing toward the humanity inside us all in general can supersede these institutional impressions that warrant dismissal.  We were also drunk, which could be interpreted as an even more spectacular feat of compromise or not so much, depending on one's experience with alcohol.  But anyway, Lyotard says, "If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted), higher education becomes a subsystem of the social system, and the same performativity criterion is applied to each of these problems ... The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation, but to supply the system with players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic posts required by its institutions" (Lyotard 48).  The aim of our knowledge is to fulfill the requirements of the system, not question it.  And Humanities and the Arts as modes of study inherently (should) question, make one think about things in a different light.  Again, the concern is within these fields is why something works the way it does, what its function means for humanity as a whole, not solely with how it works to achieve its ends.  Hence the slow but sure de-legitimation of the Arts and Sciences, Humanities, Fine Arts, whatever one wants to call them, and the heightened importance on areas that comply with a productive and efficient society directed towards people using their skills to further the goals of capitalism.  In postmodernism, this idea has become an axiom.

The extension of this axiom is even more transparent under a critical point of view as Lyotard points out: "The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer 'Is it true?' but 'What use is it?' In the context of the mercantilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: 'Is it saleable?' And in the context of power-growth: 'Is it efficient?'" (Lyotard 51).  And this sort of logic, which gets flooded into computers, backed up and accessed easily, becomes "'nature' for the postmodern man" (Lyotard 51).

The optimism with all of this in mind, as Lyotard eventually points out, lies in our human nature.  What the aims of capitalism seek to do is create a world of definite space, evidenced by skyscrapers, corporate art, etc.  It aims to train people toward particular goals, toward a singular ideal of individuality, self-reliance, all that nonsense.  Basically it wants to narrow everything down so that a person must travel within its channels.  But since our culture is not controlled by one monolithic figure, but rather a group of likeminded capitalists and businessmen who, given their position have no choice but to comply with the logic of their position ("As a capitalist, he is only capital personified" (Marx 342)), there are ways to slip through the cracks in the system, exploiting the small holes within the axioms that built us up to this point.  And he suggests that science today is aimed at doing just that; instead of being aimed at just creating something certain or definite, it now looks at exploring the paradoxes, the unknown, finding out what something isn't rather than finding out what it is.  "Postmodern science—by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, "fracta" catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes—is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown. And it suggests a model of legitimation that has nothing to do with maximized performance, but has as its basis difference understood as paralogy" (Lyotard 60).  Paralogy is defined as a form of reasoning that does not conform to the rules of logic.  And this, ironically, happens because scientists, as individuals pitted against one another are trained to one-up one another through their discoveries, and the only thing left to do is to extend the field into the unknown areas.  "Paralogy must be distinguished from innovation: the latter is under the command of the system, or at least used by it to improve its efficiency; the former is a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge (Lyotard 61).  The point of this illustration is to show that science does have capabilities outside its service to capital, but they are not exercised, because they are of no merit towards the ends of capital.  And if this form of scientific research, parology, continues to rise, what then?  "Is it a refusal to cooperate with the authorities, a move in the direction of counterculture, with the attendant risk that all possibility for research will be foreclosed due to lack of funding?" (Lyotard 64).  It seems pretty likely as an option.

But Lyotard ends his short book with an outright dismissal of a cultural consensus (which goes in the complete opposite direction than where I thought he was going in the first sections), not so much because he doesn't see value in it, but because it has been made impossible.  "Humanity as a collective (universal) subject seeks its common emancipation through the regularization of the 'moves' permitted in all language games and that the legitimacy of any statement resides in its contributing to that emancipation" (Lyotard 66).  Basically, humanity will always try to fit through the holes of our social, intellectual constructions and axioms.  This is, he suggests, a way towards creating a more just world, through our state of fragmentation and individuality.

Whether unconscious or not, people are tending to realize that "the system seems to be a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it, dehumanizing it in order to rehumanize it at a different level of normative capacity" (Lyotard 63).  It seeks to erase any sense of nature we had in our distant past and recreate a secondhand human nature aimed at fulfilling itself.  But despite this there is still a reaction.  Even though it may not be as articulate and definite as the creations of capitalism, there is still a strong refusal to accept these terms.  Not only in scientific paralogy as explained in this book, but even in my experiences in graduate school.  I'm not sure if it is a general movement within the Humanities as a death grip reaction to its slow eradication and axiomatic dismissal, but a good number of my professors have extremely revolutionary intentions in their teaching, and make no reservations about it.  It's actually quite comforting to know that despite an all encompassing system aimed at maintaining only itself, there is still a stern sense of ideology that dismisses it all and maintains that there can be something better and that there are holes within the system that can be pointed out and explored if we could just slow down and reexamine them.

Works Cited:

Lyotard, Jean Francois.  The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984
Marx, Karl.  Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin, 1990.

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