PRINT September 1998


Jean-François Lyotard

THE PARADOXICAL TITLE GIVEN to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Artforum essay of 1982, “presenting the unpresentable,” might retrospectively name an art and an ethic peculiar to this philosopher/critic/aesthetician who died of complications from leukemia in April at the age of seventy-three; it might characterize a long philosophical activity, without method or doctrine, carried on in many places and in many ways. For his was a singular intelligence—mobile, generous, light—that had navigated all the debates and divisions of his time. He was a man of “peregrinations” (as he called them), through many countries and zones of thought, where he invented an art of hearing the “otherness” in others and of responding to what was new, odd, amiss around him. Already in 1971, he was attempting to offer a new view of the unconscious in art, at odds with the prevailing linguistic or structural one, opening onto the problem of presenting the unpresentable—seeing what we can’t see, thinking what we can’t yet think. Unfortunately, his Discours, Figure, which spells out an alternative view of the figural and its relationship with “bad form” or “un-form,” has yet to become available in English. In 1979, he went on to announce a “postmodern condition.” He was one of the earliest to see the link between integrated markets, financial capital, and electronic media now better known to us as “globalization”; and his show Les Immatériaux at the Centre Pompidou in 1985 was a first great curatorial attempt to diagnose its effects on our very idea of the arts. Within this condition he tried to raise the problem of injustice, of wrongs for which we do not already possess a language or law of justice. He thought that such “différends” had the status of events that interrupt our “common sense.” The events of ’68, for example, would introduce différends surrounding questions of power, sexuality, and minority. In his book La Différend, of 1983, he tried to show how such events required a politics and a responsibility toward a radical “otherness” that Emmanuel Levinas had helped introduce into our inherited notions of Christian fraternity and liberal rights, with the corresponding necessity of calling for a new sense of “citizenship” and of “the cosmopolitan.” It was in this context that I first came to know Lyotard.

It all started on a train ride we took together to Rutgers, where he was participating in a“dialogue” between Jews and Palestinians. Along the way, we talked about many things, conversation passing lightly from one topic to another. I told him of a volume Cornel West and I were editing on “post-analytic philosophy”; it would later appear in French with his introduction. As we talked on, New Jersey unfolding before our eyes, I was suddenly aware of being in the presence of a highly original intelligence, a charm, a humor, a cleverness, at once pointed and languid. Later as I got to know him and his works better, I came to appreciate not only the ways that intelligence was suited to the moment I was only dimly aware we were then passing through, but also that it was itself a delicate and subtle creation, born of many circumstances, many peregrinations.

Lyotard’s work of course had come from other climates and times. After a first book on phenomenology, he had been engaged politically in Algeria, eventually working with Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Hubert Damisch in the group Socialisme ou Barbarie. From this early militant phase he would take off on what he would describe as a dérive, punctuated precisely by the “events” of ’68, when he was teaching at the radical campus of the University of Paris at Nanterre—a many-pathed “drift” in which aesthetics, and indeed the very idea of “the visual” in the visual arts, would play such a singular role. Yet it would be wrong to imagine Lyotard’s dérive as a melancholy matter of the sort he associated with Adorno; on the contrary, he envisaged a gay science, working with other weapons and in other ways than through abstract negation. John Cage would take the place of Arnold Schoenberg. Gradually Lyotard would elaborate other relations with America (where he came to teach in the late ’70s) than the one exemplified by Adorno’s attempt to blame the Enlightenment for Los Angeles. In particular we may see his dérive and his aesthetic as colliding and intersecting with practices and discussions in New York in a number of different ways.

For while Lyotard shared with Clement Greenberg a sense of painting’s privileged position in “Modernism,” he elaborated its place in a much different way. The whole point of the problem of figure and discourse was to depart from the “reductivist” view of abstraction Greenberg had made central to his account. Thus, later on in his book on Duchamp’s “transformation of the field” of art, the problem for Lyotard was not one of substituting “concept” for “vision” but of undoing the classical relation between discourse and figure, introducing “incommensurabilities” and a corresponding “delay” into the assumptions of pictorial practice. Thierry de Duve (whose work he helped direct) would go on to suggest how this sort of perspective might help us rethink what went on precisely at that moment in the ’60s when the “Modernism” of painting—and perhaps even the very idea of mediums in art—lost its hold; and one might imagine alternative histories of this turning point that would start from the problem Lyotard sets out in Discours, Figure concerning that which is, in the “libidinal economy” of art, irreducible to “good form.” For the “Duchamp moment” in Lyotard is not only continuous with the “figural” challenge to form; it also exemplifies a notion of event and history that, in contrast to the familiar progressivist sense of avant-garde, looks to those moments that interrupt and transform the common sense of a practice, exposing it to other possibilities—indeed the very idea of aesthetics is to be rethought in relation to such events. That, in any case, struck me as part of the force and originality in Lyotard’s approach; and in my own work I tried to develop the idea of event in relation to another theme that came up on the trip to Rutgers—the problem of modernity itself, and how it would figure in the German, French, and Anglo-American philosophical traditions. Today, when, for instance, there is renewed talk of modernity in the arts in a situation of much-altered geographies, we might turn back to Lyotard and his pointed, mobile intelligence.

What, for example, should we make of Lyotard’s prescient ideas about “techno—science” and “immateriality” at a time (quite unlike the old days of Marshall McLuhan) of “media centers” carrying on the “digital revolution” to the delight of corporate sponsors and local institutions alike? Perhaps some indications are to be found in the short essays from the ’90s in which Lyotard talks about an “artificialization of life” and a new division between “zonites” and “victims”—those living (or surviving) in a sort of great electronically “connected,” “conurban” zone stretching around the globe and those, more or less desperate, excluded from it, to whom aid is only selectively afforded. I like, for example, his suggestion in Postmodern Fables of a sort of digital debility that would assume the role of the“stupidity” Flaubert diagnosed in the last century in relation to the Library, the Museum, and the Encylopedia as an element that arts and letters must combat and from which they derive. (One might see the “bad infinity” of the encylopedic “stupidity” of Bouvard and Pécuchet in the endless Al efforts to put life itself into the “modules” of a computer-brain.) For that perhaps is what the practice of aesthetics was for Lyotard in his many phases and dérives—not a “theory,” not a “method,” not a “correctness,” but rather a kind of intelligence, ever on the move. It is what makes of him a “postmodern” or “global” Diderot, happy to have his lumières in the plural, without overarching unity, alive to and, when possible, “enthusiastic” (to take the term he found in Kant) about what is happening to us—alive to what is strange, singular, problematic, not in “good form.”

Speaking at Lyotard’s funeral, Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister, called for a moment of silence in the Chambre des Députés. For my part I would like to think of this moment of silence as a pause for the singular intelligence I encounted that day on the way to Rutgers, and one that we encounter and reencounter in his many works.

John Rajchman is a contributing editor of Artforum.