- Exceeding the GivenRewriting Lyotard’s Aesthetics
The past few years have seen a remarkable resurgence of scholarship on Jean-François Lyotard. New texts have been uncovered and released (Lyotard 2012b); first-time English translations of major works have appeared (Lyotard 2009a, 2011); the bilingual six-volume Writings on Contemporary Art and Artists is now complete (containing, in its turn, both reissues of previous material and newly published works and translations; see, e.g., Lyotard 2009b, 2012c); and there are several recent monographs and collections devoted to his thought in both French and English (e.g., Nouvet, Stahuljak, and Still 2007; Grebowicz 2007; Enaudeau et al. 2008; Vega 2010; Pagès 2010, 2011; Cany, Poulain, and Prado 2011; Bamford 2012; Bickis and Shields 2013). Though it would hardly be fair to suggest that scholarship on Lyotard had dried up since his death in 1998 (this is not the case), the recent spate of publications would seem to testify to a certain resilience in his polymorphous and ever-resistant thought, in spite of the general decline of the “postmodernism” to which Lyotard’s name is so often—and so problematically—attached. Far from dating itself with the passage of supposed scholarly fads, the richness and variety of Lyotard’s thinking is perhaps only coming more fully into view now that some common misconceptions of the so-called postmodern have been—at least partially—deflected.
Of course, as we will see, one cannot simply dissociate Lyotard from some sense of the postmodern. Since the publication of La condition postmoderne (The Postmodern Condition) in 1979, the book that to some extent brought him to [End Page 107] international attention, Lyotard’s name has been attached to the term postmodern for better or (usually) for worse—and we should not forget that he himself, quite aware of the controversies surrounding his use of this word, has continually returned to the question, reworking it from a variety of angles. Some of these reworkings or rewritings appear in the pages that follow, and I shall return to them. But one should recall too that Lyotard’s writings span many years and concern far more than the “postmodern condition,” however one might come to understand this term. His earliest book, first published in 1954, was devoted to phenomenology (see Lyotard 1991b), and as Geoffrey Bennington remarks in his contribution to this special issue, Lyotard’s philosophical career proceeded to take a number of “apparently dramatic and often disconcerting shifts”—of emphasis, style, method—in the many works that followed. Over a decade of militant Marxism in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, leaves its traces not only on a collection of writings from that period (Lyotard 1989) but also in the rejections, resistances, and inflections of the texts from the early 1970s that mark his “drift” from both Marx and Freud (for instance, Discourse, Figure, Libidinal Economy, or, most obviously, Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud [Drifting from Marx and Freud]). Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, paths of inquiry multiply around a plethora of figures: the libidinal, the pagan, language games, phrase universes, infancy, the inhuman, the sublime—and yes, the “postmodern.” Similar to the logic of what he calls the avant-garde, each new path avoids familiar and comforting idioms (often even those of his own invention), experimenting instead with the categories through which thinking ought to proceed. Rather than fulfill the expectations of an already-established audience or “community” of thinkers (a theme we will return to), these figures demand thought precisely by questioning the rules of thinking. It might rather be a question of the creation of an audience or a public after the fact, while the challenge for the commentator would be to find “passages”—to use yet another figure, this time from The Differend—between them (see Lyotard 1988a).
Lyotard’s work is thus anything but one-dimensional, as testified to by the four essays that make up the section of this special issue titled “Rewritings.”1 These essays were all initially presented at the “Rewriting Lyotard” conference at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in February 2011. This conference, which sought to build on...