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Reviewed by:
  • Jean-François Lyotard by Kiff Bamford
  • James Williams
Jean-François Lyotard. By Kiff Bamford. (Critical Lives.) London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 176 pp., ill.

In this entertaining and rewarding intellectual biography, Kiff Bamford cuts to the chase right from start. Why is it appropriate and useful to write a biography about a thinker whose works contest the very idea of a life retold? Famously, Jean-François Lyotard proclaimed the end of grand historical and political narratives. It is less well known how this view extended to any life: we are multiple and fragmentary collages of influences, events, and acts. Our names are therefore mere matters of convenience. They anchor contingent and changeable ways of aggregating labyrinths that remain resistant to treatment as a whole. The response Bamford offers is also the reason why his book is worthwhile. Instead of giving us a simple biography, or a simple intellectual biography, in the sense of a recounting of the scholarly sources of Lyotard's work, Bamford plays them off each other. Biographical facts, such as Lyotard's teaching in Algeria in the lead up to the War of Independence and his subsequent posting to an elite military academy to teach philosophy, are put alongside writings, such as his anonymous articles on Algeria for the militant group Socialisme ou Barbarie. On this fiftieth anniversary of May '68, I will single [End Page 477] out Bamford's precise and sensitive account of the 'transformative' effect of that stifled revolution on Lyotard's writing (p. 67), leading him to drift away from Marx and Freud, and towards twin concerns for art and the impossibility of understanding one another. With the recent publications of Discourse, Figure in English (for example, Discourse, Figure, trans. by Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)) and the comprehensive editions of Lyotard's many essays on art and artists, he is becoming better known for his aesthetics. Another valuable aspect of this biography comes from Bamford's background in art. It has allowed him to offer provocative and enlightening explanations for how Lyotard co-organized the 'giant exhibition Les Immatériaux' at the Pompidou Centre in 1985 (p. 104), or why he wrote one of his deepest and most technical books on Marcel Duchamp (Les Transformateurs Duchamp (Paris: Galilée, 1977)). In our stupid age of rush to judgement and clamour to punish, aided by our amoral electronic toys, a final reason to recommend this beautiful book is its humanism. There is a persistent and self-serving error in accusing Lyotard and his fellow late-twentieth-century thinkers as anti-humanists as if this means they were inhumane. Bamford shows this to be a profound misrepresentation by giving glimpses of the love Lyotard gave and the love that was given to him. This affection was inscribed deeply into his work. Where he criticizes and mocks our human ages, epochs, and lust for violence, it is never in the name of some non-human, cold-hearted cruelty, but rather to call us back to the effects and affects we share and how we can do justice to them. This book does the same, not least in the moving story of Bamford's research, in the aftermath of Lyotard's last years, and among those who still love those many labyrinths.

James Williams
Deakin University


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pp. 477-478
Launched on MUSE
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