- Lyotard’s Anti-Aesthetics: Voice and Immateriality in Postmodern Art
Soundproof Room, the final completed work by the cultural philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, reads like a crystallization of the essential elements of his 1996 biography of André Malraux, entitled Signed, Malraux (and also translated into English by David Harvey). Soundproof Room is rich in references to that text, but abandons the “junkyard writing” of the earlier work—a style that purportedly “apes” Malraux’s own writing—to return to the dense, poetic style more familiar to Lyotard’s readers.1 Although Signed, Malraux is a narrative of Malraux’s work and the life that is indistinguishable from it (and this from one who famously declared himself suspicious of “grand narratives”), Lyotard creates a new genre he calls “hypobiography,” declaring in effect that postmodern biography will be scenic, much as Malraux’s own work has often been called cinematic for its syncopated rhythms evocative of physical sensations. In Soundproof Room, subtitled “Malraux’s Anti-Aesthetics,” Lyotard clearly strives to elucidate the relationships between Malraux, politics, aesthetics, and Lyotard’s own body of work. The biographical concerns of Signed, Malraux are further condensed into moments or scenes of ontological questioning that beautifully, if stridently, illustrate the central concerns of periodization in art and the fragile status of the individual political or aesthetic gesture that have animated all of Lyotard’s work.
Robert Harvey’s facing-page translation makes it convenient to consult the original French, which is useful for a text that rests so heavily on Lyotard’s previous work on Malraux, and on his own prior writings on aesthetics, notably in The Inhuman. For in positing the work of art as a soundproof room, as an “empty trachea [...] in which silence might stir,” Lyotard further develops his fascination for the inhuman in art, for the way in which the work of art bears witness to the unpresentable, the “it happens” of the sublime developed throughout his oeuvre. Malraux as historical individual is subsumed; voice and ego are eclipsed, having gone over to the side of the third person, and out of this death comes an account of the renewal of the rise of the work of art. As Lyotard writes, “man is only that which exceeds the inhuman of artwork” (38).
Malraux is not the first thinker Lyotard has adopted from an earlier period in the service of postmodernism: He is indebted to Kant (in The Differend and Lessons in the Analytic of the Sublime), Freud (in The Libidinal Economy), Diderot, Newmann, Duchamp, and even Rabelais—and yet it would be wrong to accuse him, as some have, of “modernist” tendencies. Postmodernism is a non-periodizing concept for Lyotard, one that arises out of a differend or irreducible heterogeneity, and must be viewed as a critical stance. Language is insufficient to convey an incommunicable content, and the postmodern arises out of this incommensurability. Malraux, in his life and work, repeatedly comes up against precisely this kind of a differend in which death (Lyotard’s La Redite, which Harvey renders as “the Redundant One”) appears as the only possible outlet. Lyotard has always interpreted postmodern politics and thought in terms of this sort of aesthetic formulation, and in Soundproof Room he reduces the biography of Malraux to its aesthetic heart: the quest for the limits of experience and the eclipse of the first person of biography by the annihilating, redundant force of death.
Why should one talk about “anti-aesthetics” in Malraux? Aesthetics refers to the analysis of things perceived by the senses, to material forms, and has further come to connote a response to the beautiful in art or in nature, “taste” deriving from the Kantian sensus communis. But for Lyotard, as for Malraux, art evokes the sublime. There is no community of feeling or of like-minded connoisseurs, no recourse to reassuring forms. In The Inhuman, Lyotard writes, “we find sublime those spectacles which exceed any real...