Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-98) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-98)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Jean-Francois Lyotard was born in Vincennes, France, and studied philosophy and literature at Sorbonne University, where he met Gilles Deleuze. In the last year of the war, Lyotard served as a first-aid volunteer in occupied Paris. After passing his agregation in philosophy in 1950, he began teaching in a lycee in French-occupied Algeria. He became radicalized in the mid-1950s and joined the socialist collective Socialisme et Bar- barie. By the early 1960s, he was lecturing at the Sorbonne, attending Jacqaes Lacan’s seminars and, later in the decade, teaching at the University of Paris X (Nanterre) and serving as director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. In 1971, Lyotard received his doctorate and began teaching at the University of Paris VII (Vincennes), where he remained until his retirement in 1987. Throughout the late 1980s and '90s, he lectured and taught all over the world and served as regular visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine.

After publishing a major work on phenomenology in 1954, Lyotard devoted much of his time to political journalism and Marxist essays on philosophical topics, publishing many of them in Socialism et Barbarie. In 1971 he published his doctoral thesis as Discourse, figure. This text is a response to Lacan’s seminars and to Structuralism in general. Throughout the 1970s Lyotard continued to explore psychoanalytic questions, often alongside Marxist themes, as in Derive a partir de Marx et Freud (1973). His most important work of this period was Libidinal Economy (1974), an innovative critique of philosophy and Marxism from the perspective of Freud’s theory of desire. Lyotard’s reputation as a Postmodernist was secured with The Postmodern Condition (1979), a study of Western knowledge and its transmission that focused on new forms of information analysis, especially game theory and pragmatics. His famous formulation of the Postmodern as that which, in the modern, resists representation has been widely adapted by theorists of postmodernity. Throughout the 1980s, he turned his attention to aesthetics, specifically the concept of the sublime, and to philosophical ethics. His work on the latter produced Le Differend (1983), which argues that social and cultural discourses often perpetuate a situation of incommensurability in which it is impossible to guarantee agreement in matters of justice, aesthetics, and moral philosophy. The differend marks this impossibility by naming the irreducible DIFFERENCE that defines it. Lyotard’s theory of the Postmodern was developed throughout the 1980s and early '90s, issuing in two important essay collections, The Postmodern Explained to Children (1986) and Toward the Postmodern (1993). The last decade of his life saw a renewed interest in Kant’s aesthetics and the publication, in 1994, of

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime. in this text, as in so many of his works at this time, Lyotard reminds us of postmodernity's lingering indebtedness to Enlightenment philosophy.


Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

---- . Libidinal Economy. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

---- . The Lyotard Reader. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989.

---- . The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

---- . Toward the Postmodern. Ed. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993.