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Jean-Francois Lyotard “The Inhuman”

Lyotard, Jean-Francois 1993. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Introduction: About the Human

In 1913, Apollinaire wrote ingenuously: “More than anything, artists are men who want to become inhuman.” (2)

To go fast is to forget fast, to retain only the information that is useful afterwards, as in ‘rapid reading’. But writing and reading which advance backwards in the direction of the unknown thing ‘within’ are slow. One loses one’s time seeking time lost. (3)

That it always remains for the adult to free himself or herself from the obscure savageness of childhood by bringing about its promise – that is precisely the condition of humankind. (4)

‘Development’ is the ideology of the present time, it realizes the essential of metaphysics, which was a thinking pertaining to forces much more than to the subject. (6)

1. Can Thought Go on without a Body?

Dehumanized still implies human – a dead human, but conceivable: because dead in human terms, still capable of being sublated in thought. (10)

Human death is included in the life of human mind. (11)

You decide to accept the challenge of the extremely likely annihilation of a solar order and an order of your own thought. And then the only left you is quite clear – it’s been underway for some time – the job of simulating conditions of life and thought to make thinking remain materially possible after the change in the condition of matter that’s the disaster. (11-12)

So the problem of the technological sciences can be stated as: how to provide this software with a hardware that is independent of the conditions of life on earth. That is: how to make thought without a body possible. A thought that continues to exist after the death of the human body. This is the price to be paid if the explosion is to be conceivable, if the death of the sun is to be a death like other deaths we know about. (13-14)

[…] what makes thought and the body inseparable isn’t just that the latter is the indispensable hardware for the former, a material prerequisite of its existence. It’s that each of them is analogous to the other in its relationship with its respective (sensible, symbolic) environment: the relationship being analogical in both cases. (16)

Thinking, like writing or painting, is almost no more than letting a givable come towards you. (18)

In what we call thinking the mind isn’t ‘directed’ but suspended. You don’t give it rules. You teach it to receive. You don’t clear the ground to build unobstructed: you make a little clearing where the penumbra of an almost-given will be able to enter and modify its contour. (19)

The unthought hurts because we’re comfortable in what’s already thought. And thinking, which is accepting this discomfort, is also, to put it bluntly, an attempt to have done with it. That’s the hope sustaining all writing (painting, etc.): that at the end, things will be better. As there is no end, this hope is illusory. So: the unthought would have to make your machines uncomfortable, the uninscribed that remains to be inscribed would have to make their memory suffer. Do you see what I mean? Otherwise why would they ever start thinking? (20)

2. Rewriting modernity

A secret would not be a ‘real’ secret if no-one knew it was a secret. For the crime to be perfect, it would have to be known to be perfect, and by that very fact it stops being perfect. To make the point differently, but within the same order of memory, à la John Cage, there is no silence that is not heard as such, and therefore makes some noise. (28)

By endeavouring to find an objectively first cause, like Oedipus, one forgets that the very will to identify the origin of the evil is made necessary by desire. For it is of the essence of desire to desire also to free itself of itself, because desire is intolerable. So one believes one can put an end to desire, and one fulfils its end (this is the ambiguity of the word end, aim and cessation: the same ambiguity as with desire). One tries to remember, and this is probably a good way of forgetting again. (29)

3. Matter and time

The soul has at its disposal the only language. The body is a confused speaker: it says ‘soft’, ‘warm’, ‘blue’, ‘heavy’, instead of talking straight lines, curves, collisions and relations. Matter thus denied, foreclosed, remains present in this violently modern thinking: it is the enigmatic confusion of the past, the confusion of the badly built city, of childhood, ignorant and blind, of the cross-eyed look of the little girl loved by René Descartes as a child. Of everything that comes to us from behind, ‘before’. Confusion, prejudice, is matter in thought, the disorder of the past which takes place before having been wanted and conceived, which does not know what it is saying, which must be endlessly translated and corrected, currently and actively, into distinct intuitions. Childhood, the unconscious, time, because ‘then’ is ‘now’, the old, are the matter that the understanding claims to resolve in the act and actuality of the instantaneous intuitus. All energy belongs to the thinking that says what it says, wants what it wants. Matter is the failure of thought, its inert mass, stupidity. (38)

Pragmatism, as its name suggests, is one of the many versions of humanism. The human subject it presupposes is, to be sure, material, involved in a milieu, and turned towards action. The fact remains that this action is given a finality by an interest, which is represented as a sort of optimum adjustment of subject to environment. But if one looks at the history of the sciences and techniques (and of the arts, of which I have said nothing, even though the question of matter, of material especially, is decisive for them), one notices that this was not, and is not – especially today – in fact their finality. (44)

An immaterialist materialism, if it is true that matter is energy and mind is contained vibration. One of the implications of this current of thinking is that it ought to deal another blow to what I shall call human narcissism. Freud already listed three famous ones: man is not the centre of the cosmos (Copernicus), is not the first living creature (Darwin), is not the master of meaning (Freud himself). Through contemporary techno-science, s/he learns that s/he does not have the monopoly of mind, that is of complexification, but that complexification is not inscribed as a destiny in matter, but as possible, and that it takes place, at random, but intelligibly, well before him/herself. S/he learns in particular that his/her own science is in its turn a complexification of matter, in which, so to speak, energy in itself comes to be reflected, without humans necessarily getting any benefit from this. And that thus s/he must not consider him/herself as an origin or as a result, but as a transformer ensuring, through techno-science, arts, economic development, cultures and the new memorization they involve, a supplement of complexity in the universe. (45)

4. Logos and Techne, or Telegraphy

Current technology, that specific mode of tele-graphy, writing at a distance, removes the close contexts of which rooted cultures are woven. It is thus, through its specific manner of inscription, indeed productive of a sort of memorization freed from the supposedly immediate conditions of time and space. The question to follow here would be as follows: what is a body (body proper, social body) in tele-graphic culture? It calls up a spontaneous production of the pas in habit, a tradition or transmission of ways of thinking, willing and feeling, a sort of breaching, then, which complicates, counters, neutralizes and extenuates earlier community breachings, and in any case translates them so as to move them on too, make them transmissible. If the earlier remain there at all, resist a bit, they become subcultures. The question of hegemonic teleculture on a world scale is already posed. (50)

It is perfectly possible to say that the living cell, and the organism with its organs, are already tekhnai, that ‘life’, as they say, is already technique: the fact remains that its ‘language’ (genetic code, say) not only limits the performance of this technique but also (in fact it’s the same thing) does not allow it to be objectified, known and complexified in a controlled way. The history of life on earth cannot be assimilated to the history of technique in the common sense, because it has not proceeded by remembering but by breaching. (52)

5. Time Today

The event makes the self incapable of taking possession and control of what it is. It testifies that the self is essentially passible to a recurrent alterity. (59)

Why do we have to save money and time to the point where this imperative seems like the law of our lives? Because saving (at the level of the system as a whole) allws the system to increase the quantity of money given over to anticipating the future. This is particularly the case with the capital invested in research and development. The enjoyment of humanity must, it is clear, be sacrificed to the interests of the monad in expansion. (67)

Capital is not an economic and social phenomenon. It is the shadow cast by the principle of reason on human relations. Prescriptions such as: communicate, save time and money, control and forestall the event, increase exchanges, are all likely to extend and reinforce the ‘great monad’. That ‘cognitive’ discourse has conquered hegemony over other genres, that in ordinary language, the pragmatic and interrelational aspect comes to the fore, whilst ‘the poetic’ appears to deserve less and less attention – all these features of the contemporary language-condition cannot be understood as effects of a simple modality of exchange, i.e. the one called ‘capitalism’ by economic and historical science. They are the signs that a new use of language is taking place, the stake of which is that of knowing objects as precisely as possible and of realizing among ordinary speakers a consensus as broad as that supposed to reign in the scientific community. (70)

Being prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking. (73)

7. The Sublime and the Avant-Garde

The inexpressible does not reside in an over there, in another world, or another time, but in this: in that (something) happens. (93)

Art does not imitate nature, it creates a world apart […] (97)

The avant-gardist attempt inscribes the occurrence of a sensory now as what cannot be presented and which remains to be presented in the decline of great representational painting. Like micrology, the avant-garde is not concerned with what happens to the ‘subject’, but with: ‘Does it happen?’, with privation. This is the sense in which it still belongs to the aesthetics of the sublime. (103)

The availability of information is becoming the only criterion of social importance. Now information is by definition a short-lived element. As soon as it is transmitted and shared, it ceases to be information, it becomes an environmental given, and ‘all is said’, we ‘know’. It is put into the machine memory. The length of time it occupies is, so to speak, instantaneous. Between two pieces of information, ‘nothing happens’, by definition. A confusion thereby becomes possible, between what is of interest to information and the director, and what is the question of the avant-gardes, between what happens – the new – and the Is it happening?, the now. (105-106)

‘Strong’ information, if one can call it that, exists in inverse proportion to the meaning that can be attributed to it in the code available to its receiver. It is like ‘noise’. It is easy for the public and for artists, advised by intermediaries – the diffusers of cultural merchandise – to draw from this observation the principle that a work of art is avant-garde in direct proportion to the extent that it is stripped of meaning. Is it not then like an event? (106)

8. Something like: ‘Communication … without Communication’

In the conflict surrounding the word communication, it is understood that the work, or at any rate anything which is received as art, induces a feeling – before inducing an understanding – which, constitutively and therefore immediately, is universally communicable, by definition. Such a feeling is thereby distinguishable from a merely subjective preference. This communicability, as a demand and not as a fact, precisely because it is assumed to be originary, ontological, eludes communicational activity, which is not a receptiveness but something which is managed, which is done. This, in my view, is what governs our problematic of ‘new technologies and art’, or, put differently, ‘art and postmodernity’. This communicability, as it is developed in the Kantian analysis of the beautiful, is well and truly ‘anterior’ to communication in the sense of ‘theories of communication’, which include communicative pragmatics […] This assumed communicability, which takes place immediately in the feeling of the beautiful is always presupposed in any conceptual communication. (109)

In the reception of works of art, what is involved is the status of a sentimental, aesthetic community, one certainly ‘anterior’ to all communication and all pragmatics. The cutting out of intersubjective relations has not yet happened and there would be an assenting, a unanimity possible and capable of being demanded, within an order which cannot ‘yet’ be that of argumentation between rational and speaking subjects. (110)

Any industrial production pays homage to this profound and fundamental problematic of re-presentation, and aesthetic feeling presupposes something which necessarily is implied, and forgotten, in representation: presentation, the fact that something is there now. (111)

[…] what is hit, first of all, and complains, in our modernity, or our postmodernity, is perhaps space and time. What is attacked would be space and time as forms of the donation of what happens. The real ‘crisis of foundations’ was doubtless not that of the foundations of reason but of any scientific enterprise bearing on so-called real objects, in other words given in sensory space and time. (112)

We find sublime those spectacles which exceed any real representation of a form, in other words where what is signified is the superiority of our power of freedom vis-à-vis the one manifested in the spectacle itself. In singling out the sublime, Kant places the accent on something directly related to the problem of the failing of space and time. The free-floating forms which aroused the feeling of the beautiful come to be lacking. In a certain way the question of the sublime is closely linked to what Heidegger calls the retreat of Being, retreat of donation. For Heidegger, the welcome accorded something sensory, in other words some meaning embodied in the here-and-now before any concept, no longer has place and moment. This retreat signifies our current fate. (113)

What we live by and judge by is exactly this will to action. If a computer invites us to play or lets us play, the interest valorized is that the one receiving should manifest his or her capacity for initiative, activity, etc. We are thus still derivatives from the Cartesian model of ‘making oneself master and possessor …’ It implies the retreat of the passibility by which alone we are fit to receive and, as a result, to modify and do, and perhaps even enjoy. This passibility as jouissance and obligatory belonging to an immediate community is repressed nowadays in the general problematic of communication, and is even taken as shameful. But to take action in the direction of this activity which is so sought-after is only to react, to repeat, at best to conform feverishly to a game that is already given or installed [gestellt?]. Passibility, in contrast, has to do with an immediate community of feeling demanded across the singular aesthetic feeling, and what is lost is more than simple capacity, it is propriety. Interactional ideology is certainly opposed to a passivity but it remains confined in a completely secondary opposition. (117)

Not to be contemplative is a sort of implicit commandment, contemplation is perceived as a devalorized passivity. (118)