Reading Guide to: Benhabib, S (1984) 'Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to Jean-Francois Lyotard', in New German Critique, Fall: 103 - 26.

Architecture was once discussed as some kind of embodiment of the zeitgeist ['spirit of the times']. The Faustian dream [that lay behind the redesign of many modern cities] has become a nightmare. Now some recoil is under way, questioning the entire framework, and involving a denial of 'reason, representation and history' as the functions of Architecture: these are now mere fictions (104). Philosophy too has come under the same questioning as in Lyotard and his notion of the eclipse of grand narratives, which are to be replaced by new options like paralogy or agonistics in the now temporary nature of social life.

For Lyotard, the classic episteme led to a view of society as a functional whole, and to the 'performativity principle', which was always intertwined with power. The only alternative was society as bifurcated, needing restoration and empowerment, or some kind of reconciliation, as in Habermas's 'ideal speech act'.

The classic impulses led to a suspension of belief in order to categorise, and to distinctions such as facts and values, subject and object. The recovery [of some kind of unity] was possible only through empiricism or rationalism, although the problem remained of adequate representation, where theory attempts to mirror nature. Some threefold division was maintained between ideas, the words to express them, and the things which they represented. These views were threatened by three criticisms, of the subject, the object, and the sign:

(a) Subjects constitute reality, as in the German Idealist tradition found in Marx, Freud, or Habermas. Ideas arise not only from the self, but from historical and social conditions on the one hand, and the unconscious on the other. Reflection can render these influences conscious and thus emancipate itself from various blocks standing in the way of emancipation.

(b) Nietszche, Heidegger, Adorno and Horkheimer have analysed domination of the object, such as the argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment where the concept itself imposes a unity in identity.

(c) Saussure, Peirce, Frege and Wittgenstein argued [each in their way] that signs are not just 'private marks' (Wittgenstein). Saussure pointed to the arbitrary relations at the heart of language systems, Frege suggested that the sentence was the unit of meaning, and Wittgenstein drew attention to the uses of language.

Lyotard's position arises out of this latter argument, after language had replaced consciousness [as the source of subjectivity and meaning], with all that that implied (for example the threat to the social nature of the subject or its eclipse). The strong implication is that only local and temporary meanings remain (hence agonistics). But all the familiar problems remain as well -- either we accept full relativism, or we attempt to quietly privilege one domain of discourse and knowledge. The choice is between 'polytheism or dogmatism' (111).

Answers to these problems can be found in the work by Habermas and Apel on transcendental pragmatics. Both agree that knowledge is now performative, a matter of 'argumentative, discursive practice' (112). There are implicit universal rules (universal pragmatics) for Habermas. Lyotard discusses this possibility under the heading of narrativity. These pragmatics are continuous with every day discourse for Habermas, but a radically different discourse and narrative for Lyotard: narrative for him always closes, precludes disagreements and legitimacy claims, and functions as rhetoric. For Habermas, speech acts directed at one of the validity claims are emancipatory, but for Lyotard it is a matter of forcing belief, and manipulating others. Speech acts have cognitive functions for Habermas, but evocative ones for Lyotard.

For Lyotard, power and validity are inseparable in that speakers largely claim some unjustifiable, charismatic power in and through the validity of what they say (114). Those addressed can marshal the power to disagree, but Lyotard glosses this. Paradoxes result -- is all language strategic? Is 'all conversation seduction, all consensus conquest?'. Lyotard does not distinguish between different effects of language, such as the differences between statements of intent and threats, or the differences between attempts to open or close off possibilities. Is all speech manipulative? (if so, why is not Lyotard's?). The implication of his arguments seems to lead towards the development of new avant garde forms to break out of the old constraints -- aphorisms, poetics, chiasms, or deconstructions -- yet this is not advocated.

To take another example, the piece by Rorty on the Habermas - Lyotard dispute [which I have not referenced -- apologies] also points to problems. The notion of truth or validity requires a metadiscourse [a point for Habermas?], but such discussions risk relativism as 'context - dependent criticism' [a point for Lyotard?]. Lyotard in response seems to end in dogmatism, claiming post-modern science as a privileged knowledge practice (the notion of the sublime is also dogmatic?). This is a curious kind of scientism, or perhaps some emergent knowledge which science represents (118). Rorty's belief [with Lyotard] that little narratives themselves have the power to hold societies together, with no need for grand emancipatory theories, is an oddly empirical claim, yet based on no clear analysis of culture and society.

Lyotard is ambivalent about what he means by narratives. They exist at the pre-modern level, and here he refers to them as fables or myths, something non-reflexive. This is too general, and there is no account of change or progress except externally. How exactly are they supposed to co-exist with post-modern science - as equal to? Inferior to? The whole analysis is produced from an observer's position rather than that of participants -- the latter soon realise that there are moral and cognitive problems and inevitable questions of validity. Good analysts also compare different narratives, and engage in dialogue with them rather than treating them as 'data'. Instead, Lyotard avoids dialogue, acknowledges diversity, but denies a nostalgic or emancipatory intent -- although he still wants to privilege some modern narratives, such as mathematics.

Political judgments are inevitable, and Lyotard is best seen as a disillusioned marxist. He now sees politics as a choice 'between a polytheism of desire and a republic of terror' (121), but this is again too general and idealist. There is, for example no sympathy for the specific German context of Habermas's or Hegel's thought. Can there be no other post - marxist position? [see Fraser on this]. Lyotard's avant-gardism could be the basis for a new politics, but polytheism is a dubious base on its own, which can quickly be dissociated from social reform [as cultural politics often are], and can even lead to [radical, politicised] Otherness being excluded altogether, as 'beyond the pale of a common humanity' (123).

Habermas thinks we must emphasise the defence of a 'communicative discursive concept of reason'. Is this foundational? Lyotard's own micropolitical appeal to enable groups to share narratives and power is itself idealist -- we know which groups will actually organise to do this. This reveals the usual neglect of structural inequalities, and also demonstrates how Lyotard ignores the elements of language games: they do compete, take over, install other versions rather than passively co-exist. For example we know that the conservative initiative over abortion does this. Lyotard is either assuming some social harmony, or he is merely offering playful alternatives. In particular, the insistence on irreducibly contextual politics (advocated by both Rorty and Lyotard) quietly privileges the model of politics found in Western democracies. Rorty advocates less philosophy and more social engineering, and comes very close to blaming philosophers for the existence of critique in the first place! (125).

So Lyotard leaves us with only 'frustrating eclecticism', polytheism, fragments, and pragmatic combinations. [These are chronically likely to be dominated in practice by the old elites and the power they can marshal]. What we need instead is a new non-foundational set of criteria of validity for both discursive and political practice.