Thursday, September 19, 2019

Lyotard on Postmodernism some comments

  1. This summary and comments is based on the selection on Lyotard in Continental Aesthetics:  Romanticism to Postmodernism, Blackwell.   In his three points about "postmodern" Lyotard begins with architecture.  The first architectural theorist mentioned is Portoghesi, who takes postmodernism to be against the hegemony of Euclid, i.e. of strict classical mathematics.  Lyotard does not takes this analysis as seriously, however, as Gregotti's notion that in postmodernism there is a disappearance of the bond between architecture and progressive politics, and this goes along with disappearance of the idea of progress in rationality and freedom.  In architecture, there is no longer something universal (in terms of human freedom) to greet the eye.  Instead we have a series of quotations "from earlier styles or periods."  (One feature Lyotard thinks figures into the postmodern is "disregard for the environment." (363) The new modernism of eco-sensitive architecture, which I will represent here by the work of Leddy, Maytum, Stacey of San Francisco (Bill Leddy is my brother) would therefore not be postmodern.)  Here, the "post" simply means "after" in which each period can be identified and the "post" period is a new direction.  This "idea of a linear chronology" is itself modern, relying on the idea of something completely new.  Even the idea of modernity itself is tied to this idea of something absolutely new.  So Lyotard is suggesting that the notion of "postmodern" associated with distinct periods, some of which are completely new; and the idea of bricolage, which is combining these distinct styles from distinct periods, is naive, and not sufficiently postmodern.  He suspects the rupture with the past posited by such architects and other cultural figures is really repressing while at the same time repeating it.  The postmodern should surpass it.  So the new "postmodern" architecture with all of its quotations of earlier styles, even when done ironically, is a retreat from the ideals of modernism.   So he is really not happy with architectural postmodernism and this leads him to the second meaning of the term mentioned by Gregotti.  Modernism on this view was the notion that developments in arts etc. would benefit mankind as a whole, setting aside the debate over who needed development the most, i.e. between liberals, conservatives, "leftists" (the scare quotes indicating the true left was something else.)  The goal was emancipation of humanity.   So back to the idea of postmodernism as decline in the notion of this goal.  But a new movement arises (at least he hints at this), neither liberal nor Marxist (thus independent of their crimes against humanity, symbolized by Auschwitz) which shows how impoverished the idea of emancipation of humanity was, and this leads to a Zeitgeist of grief.  The grief is expressed in reactionary attitudes, but again a new more positive perspective is possible.  The grief or malaise is only deepened by the technoscientific development which no longer has the name of progress but is independent of us and our needs.  This development is destabilizing for humanity:  and we are reduced to "chasing after the process of accumulation of new objects."  Our destiny or destination seems increasingly complex, making our needs for security, identity and happiness seemingly irrelevant.  What we get instead is a "constraint to mediatize, quantify, synthesize, and modify the size of each and every object."  But while one side of humanity faces this challenge of complexity the other faces the challenge of survival, thus failing the modernist principle that the whole of humanity should benefit. 
  2.  The third point is that the question of postmodernism is one of expression of thought "in art, literature, philosophy, politics."  The dominant view is the great movement of the avant-garde is over, modernity outdated.  Lyotard thinks this fails to understand what the avant-garde was trying to do.  They were not just a radical military move implied in their name: "the true process of avant-gardism was in reality a kind of work, a long, obstinate, and highly responsible work concerned with investigating the assumptions implicit in modernity."  That is, it is serious work.  Lyotard is mainly thinking here of visual art, painting and sculpture.  The big figures he has in mind, first listed, are Duchamp and Newman.  He thinks what they did was something like psychoanalytic therapy.  He adds to this list Cezanne, Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Malevich, and Duchamp a second time.  Through them modernity performs a "working through on its own meaning" much like psychoanalysis.  And if this work is not done, the work being a responsibility, then the West's neurosis, the source of all its misfortunes for the last two hundred years, will be unchecked.  Thus the "post" does not mean going back or repetition but analysis and recollection.  
  3.   Answering the Question:  What is Postmodernism .
  4.    The first paragraph, under "A Demand" is a list of various ways in which there is "slackening" during our period.  That is, referring back to the last section, a failure to meet the responsibility of the avant-garde.   The call is to "put an end to experimentation."  So one art historian calls for a return to realism and subjectivity, one critic favors the Italian painting movement called Transavantgardism, and yet this is very different from the is mainly for making money, and then there are the postmodern architects who reject Bauhaus modernism, once again rejecting experimentation.  And then there is a philosopher who calls for a return to Judaeo-Christian piety, and those who find Deleuze and Guattari, the French philosophers, too confusing, and those who think that the avant-gardes of 1960-70 spread terror in language and that we need a new way of speaking, that of historians.  One gets the sense that Lyotard is feeling that the experimentation and questioning of the radicals of 1968 is fading away, and he feels nostalgic for that.  

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