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02 March 2010

MCT: Lyotard and de Man

I'm back with MCT after a break, and the first essay, by Jean-François Lyotard is "Answering the question: what is postmodernism".

The simplest answer to the question is that it is the means by which modernism supersedes itself. So, Picasso was postmodern in relation to Cézanne. Unfortunately for me, Lyotard doesn't leave it there: "I would like not to remain with this slightly mechanistic meaning of the word." (p 418)

He introduces the concept of the sublime, which seems curiously old-fashioned and initially out of place. The sentiment of the sublime
takes place ... when the imagination fails to present an object which might, if only in principle, come to match a concept. [...] We can conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object destined to 'make visible' the absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate. Those are Ideas of which no presentation is possible. (p 417)
This comes from the section headed "Realism", and it seems to be part of an analysis of why realism has to be superseded. In the section headed "The postmodern", Lyotard looks at the way Proust and Joyce attempt to make the unrepresentable perceptible; Proust by way of sacrificing the identity of consciousness, Joyce by sacrificing the identity of writing. These discussions are barely longer than my summary; clearly Lyotard had better thought-out bases for these views, which might have made clearer what he means. But both are representatives of the modern:
Modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unrepresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure. [...]
The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unrepresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms. [...] The [postmodern] writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. (p 419 - 420 emphasis in original)
I think this is deeply flawed reasoning. Part of the time, Lyotard is saying that postmodernism is the mechanism by which modernism arrives. But then he seems to be saying that this postmodernism, that we're experiencing now, is different. I think it's right to say that every new modernism has its new rules, which only become apparent after the work has been around for a while; that applies to Ezra Pound, for example, but also applied to Sterne. I could also question his separation of content and form.

The other point about postmodernism that Lyotard is known for, not mentioned in this essay, is that it "rejects meta-narratives", which are described in the editors' introduction as "any explanatory framework taken to connect separate items for analysis usually on the basis of some imposed value system." (p 411)  Now, that doesn't sound right, but I have nothing here to expand on that.

The second essay "The resistance to theory", by Paul de Man, was written in English, and so at least proves that translation is not a necessary ingredient of unintelligibility. It's a horrible piece of writing. It looks at the reaction (in USA) to theoretical approaches to literature, using a lot of the concepts of classical poetics and rhetoric.The argument is essentially non-theoretical approaches don't have the tools in their box to do the job properly, but that resistance to theory shouldn't be deplored because resistance is inherent in theory itself.

I really disliked this essay (can you tell?). It goes on a lot but says very little.

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