Notes on: Gietzen, G. (2010) Jean- François Lyotard and the Question of Disciplinary Legitimacy. Policy Futures in Education 8 (2) 166 – 75

[NB he is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Policy studies, University of Illinois]

[Pretty basic stuff really]

Classic legitimating narratives for universities have become destabilised [as in the notion of the German university as based on Spirit or Civilisation]. There are new concerns about economic competitiveness. Post-modernity has led to these claims being 'met with incredulity' (166). Disciplines that are not 'reconciled to the logic of performativity' are now particularly endangered

Universities have seen crisis as lots of people have said, because the cultural media is now significantly different. For example Readings refers to an original role in national culture and emancipation, both damaged by economic globalisation and the diminished stature of the nation state. Only technological and general 'excellence' remains and these are both meaningless. For Readings, the University is post-historical, something which is outlived itself.

Although denying the term, Readings draws on Lyotard and the post-modern condition. Lyotard has become unusually important, based on that book, although it may not be actually very representative. The main theme is knowledge legitimation, and how the logic of performativity is now crucial and how this will make certain academic fields increasingly endangered. It is not just about scientific knowledge, because the humanities are also facing difficult times. They will need a new means of legitimacy.

Lyotard is summarised. Societies have become post-industrial and cultures post-modern, challenges to legitimacy have emerged. In modern times, there were 'consciously identified metanarratives', legitimating meta-discourses referring to Spirit, meaning, emancipation, or the creation of wealth. These were shared, unifying all the sciences, but these metanarratives are no longer tenable. It is important that incredulity is seen in its proper sense as '"an inability to believe"': the main thrust is to destabilise modernist ideas rather than provide alternatives, and to argue for fragmentation rather than unity. We should not regret this, however because holistic interpretations of society were always flawed, whether functionalist or Marxist. Instead, we should understand the social in terms of 'heterogeneous "language games"'.

 Lyotard does not say that there are only language games, but sees them as a minimal relation for social life. He refers to different modes of discourse or types of utterances which have different rules specifying their properties and their uses, just as with a game like chess. The rules need not be explicit but they do have to be present. If we modify the rules we change the game. Since rules are 'discreet and irreducible' (168) there can be no unified or coherent society, only 'a plurality of incommensurable games'. Language games are not based on 'essential foundations or metalinguistic commonality' but are 'objects only of a contractual agreement between the players'. There are implications for '"a Newtonian anthropology (such as structuralism or systems theory)': instead there are different language games and these only have local effects in producing institutions.

This is a useful change to totalising and totalitarian understandings of society, and instead emphasises difference. It opposes 'the universalist assumptions and consensual ideals that characterise the Enlightenment' with its universal and exclusionist [sic -- both] idea of emancipation. Localised language games have their own emancipatory potential to overturn the dominant voices and allow utterances from those who have been silenced.

However, '"the decision-makers"' will attempt to manage this situation, imposing a logic arguing that elements are commensurable and the whole is determinable. This is achieved by making language games 'subject to the logic of "performativity"' — 'the best possible input/output equation'. This in turn implies that '"the only credible goal is power"'. Language games are at incommensurable with performativity are likely to disappear as this criterion is applied with a necessary '"level of terror"'.

Back to Readings and the traditional foundational elements constituting the modern University — 'the Kantian idea of reason and the Humboldtian idea of culture' [then an odd bit which says that as with Althusser, the University then becomes an ISA, but this 'suggested the possibility of emancipation']. For Readings, as these metanarratives declined, we are left only with the pursue of a vague '"excellence" — an ultimately hollow performative goal' (169). This threat to the University is not particularly developed in Lyotard, but is closer to Jameson's Foreword which says that legitimating narratives do not function anywhere.

Universities now have to make the best contribution to the best performativity of the system, creating necessary skills. For Lyotard, these will be particular specialities for the global market, experts, including management executives, or any discipline relating to telematics. These are reconciled with performativity [not at all smoothly though in my view with deskilling and automation– they require legitimating narratives again].

Within universities, academic disciplines act as 'the most important type of language game', not only creating knowledge but building institutions and offering professional advancement. Disciplines socialise newcomers into their particular rules [I swear he has got Denzin in mind here, mentioning 'the socialising processes of graduate education, publication and professional conferences']

Barriers between disciplines have long been discussed, for example by CP Snow, with a difference between constructivist as opposed to unbiased knowledge, leading to clashes between the literary and the scientific. Kuhn also showed that scientific practices are 'culturally, historically and socially contingent' and that paradigms from different periods may be incommensurable. The second edition of his book defines a paradigm as: an exemplar and a disciplinary matrix. There is traditionally misunderstanding and conflict between these matrices with no neutral terminology to define mutually acceptable criteria. This applies to academe generally. There is incommensurability and irreconcilable rules. There are also different criteria of performativity. It is easy to see scientific knowledge as performative because of the link with technology including the military. Traditional language games disciplines are 'increasingly seen as marginal and, perhaps, illegitimate' (170).

The humanities are usually seen as the least commensurable, but so are sciences such as astronomy or theology. The Indiana State University Provost has unsurprisingly recommended eliminating both philosophy and physics as irrelevant to performance. The humanities is even more irreconcilable. There has been a long history of arguing that it is better seen as an indulgence, or is attacking the 'positive legacy of the West' (or is perpetuating colonialism and oppression from those on the left).

The 'culture wars' of the 1980s may now have lost their urgency, and humanities may be under less pressure. For example the Republican Party no longer see them as a crucial issue. However, it is no longer easy to appeal to a return to a tradition either because 'the discourse on higher education is now dominated by anxiety, global competitiveness and the need to develop human capital for the knowledge economy' (171). This 'dominant discourses ultimately functionalist' and undergraduates are increasingly difficult to convince.

A recent intervention by Fish has debated the relevance of the humanities and has adopted the form of a newspaper and then blog, with lots of responses. His own answer is that there is no outside justification, and that some activities should see themselves as useful in their own right. He further argued that there is no justification in arguing that '"poems and philosophical arguments changed lives and started movements"', even though individuals may have had their lives changed. Nor do the humanities lead to particular wisdom, or performativity, even '"the lessening of prejudice and discrimination"'. Hence there are no external justifications, despite the frequent claims about the humanities serving democracy or other goals. This is a claim for legitimacy in its own right, and is in this sense 'post-modern and perhaps even Leo tardy in' since Lyotard asserts 'that all language games are equally reasonable'. [But should they equally be funded by the taxpayer is the issue — let's hear it for free websites].

However equality means that academic disciplines cannot claim preeminence. All might be made welcome, but there is still competition for scarce resources. There must be some reconciliation to performativity, however unfortunate.

So disciplines must look for other means of legitimation, if they are to meet the real challenges not within the University where 'both career advancement and undergraduate credentials (majors) greatly limit the chances that disciplines will change significantly' (172). The logic of performativity is now pervasive [although Lyotard thought it would diminish and be replaced by parology? Is that just in science?] This might lead to a hierarchy among universities of colleges, with lower tiers focusing on the vocational and teaching, and 'diminishing the influence of its increasingly proletarianised faculty'. The current elite institutions would no doubt support this, especially in the USA with its 'largely private system of elite institutions', where faculties remain powerful, and where financial resources are still good. For those disciplines outside elite institutions, there must be an appeal beyond the institution itself, 'legitimating referents' (173), unpopular as this might be with scholars.

There might be other possibilities. Lyotard has got 'a false dichotomy' between metanarratives and multiple incommensurable language games. Language games might not be totally incommensurable, and disagreement and misunderstanding might be manageable, on the social level. This requires better communication rather than explorations of the metaphysics of language. Universities disciplines might be reconciled [especially if they have to unite for survival], not by emancipatory metanarratives, but by some performative evaluation. Have masses communicative rationality might be of assistance here.

[Then we with a lot of liberal Tosh] mutual respect for rules, agreed political negotiations to give-and-take, consideration and respect for others — 'sacrifices possible when the danger or reward is very great'.

There might also need to be new value claims for the humanities, some of which might be performative — skills for the creative economy, for example, insight into particular problems, not so grand and emancipatory, but more local. This will require a multidisciplinary effort — so that addressing an energy problem requires both technical expertise and ethical cautions from philosophers.