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  • Genesis and Structure and the Object of Postmodernism
  • Lee Spinks

1. The Problem of “Genesis” and “Structure”

This paper began as an attempt to make sense of the enigma presented by two sentences in a postscript and a paragraph in an interview. In an addendum to his influential The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard answers the question “What is Postmodernism?” by declaring “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant” (Postmodern Condition 79). Two pages later he expands on this statement in a passage which retains, in many quarters, a certain doxological authority:

The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization... always begin too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future... anterior.

Several aspects of these statements are puzzling. Why, for example, does Lyotard insist, here as elsewhere, upon a distinction between “the postmodern” and postmodernism and what governs the relationship between these forces? How can the “nascent state” of postmodernism be “constant” rather than the consequence of a particular interplay of historical forces, and what transcendental or quasi-transcendental determination lies behind this claim? What, finally, does it mean to say that a work must be postmodern before and after it is modern, and what effect does this perception have upon our idea of the historical transition between the two? Lyotard’s insistence that the postmodern artist occupies the contradictory temporal and cognitive space of the “future anterior” is unexpected since it arrives at the conclusion of an analysis that begins from a specifically periodizing hypothesis.1 For The Postmodern Condition describes the “postmodern age” as the historical effect of a shift in the status of knowledge, evident “since at least the end of the 1950s,” in which the “open system” of postmodern science has, “by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control... ‘fracta,’ catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes,” redefined knowledge in terms of paralogy and the heterogeneity of language games (60). The radical character of these new postmodern scientific epistemologies lies in their rejection of a “general metalanguage in which all other languages can be translated and evaluated.” They therefore stand opposed to those philosophical meta-narratives such as the Hegelian “dialectic of Spirit” or the “hermeneutics of meaning” that Lyotard identifies with the effacement of difference within the logic of the same and, in political terms, with “terror” in general (xxiii).

What is clear, even at this early stage, is that “the postmodern” and “postmodernism” are problematic terms for Lyotard insofar as they are defined both in terms of a genetic movement (or process of historicity) and as the necessary structural inscription of postmodernity within modernity. Lyotard’s focus upon the complex relationship between genesis and structure as somehow constitutive of the “postmodern condition” immediately suggests that to understand his work we must forestall any simple identification of the “postmodern” with the “contemporary” and situate it instead within the epistemic shift inaugurated by Kant and brought to prominence...

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