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Lyotard and the Politics of Antifoundationalism

Lyotard and the Politics of
Antifou ndational ism
Stuart Sim

An increasingly important trend in recent philosophy has
been antifoundationalism: the rejection of the search for
10gical1y-consistent, self-evidently true “grounds” for
philosophical discourse, and the substitution of ad hoc
tactical manoeuvres as justification for what are quite
often eccentric lines of argument. Antifoundationalism is
a category broad enough to encompass figures as diverse as
Derrida, Rorty, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Baudrillard, and
Lyotard – a11 of whom might be described, as one
commentator insists antifoundationalists must, as “antiidealist” [1]. It is an essentia11y strategic practice
concerned with undermining the philosophical
establishment and its commitment to foundationalist
principles. What might be ca11ed the “foundationalist
dilemma” has been summed up neatly in a recent study of
post-philosophy as follows: “There is proof, confirmation,
evidence – and then there is what grounds proof, and is in
itself incapable of being proved.” [2]
This is a problem as old as Western philosophy itself,
and in this sense antifoundationalism is merely the latest
instalment in a long-running saga which has taxed the
mind of nearly every major Western philosopher from
Plato onwards. It is not too difficult to place Rorty and
Kuhn in this debate. For all their appearance of
philosophical radicalism they operate in a fairly
tradi tional manner and pose no major methodological
problems for mainstream Anglo-Saxon philosophy. There
is general agreement amongst the participants in the
Kuhn-Popper debate as to the parameters of that debate,
and Rorty is at heart a reconciliationist (“I simply want to
suggest that we keep pragmatic tolerance going as long as
we can – that both sides see the other as honest, if
misguided, colleagues doing their best to bring light to a
dark time” [3]). Even Feyerabend, who has ruffled many
feathers in philosophy of science in recent years, slots
easily enough into the Kuhn-Popper debate as an extreme
Kuhnian. The others mentioned above are more
problematical, however, and certainly do seem to pose
methodological problems. They would appear to be
arguing for a far more radical change in our perception of
the world than the change in emphasis called for by their
Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Lyotard’s recent book The
Post modern Condition: ~ Report on Knowledge brings
many of these methodological problems to the fore, and
intend to examine the text in terms of the
antifoundationalist debate in general with the intention of
establishing the politics of antifoundationalism. Lyotard
is one of the more accessible of the radical
antifoundationalists and perhaps postmodernism is the
acceptable face of the movement, but that makes it all
the more imperative to lay bare the politics involved if,
as I am going to argue, antifoundationalism is an
ideologically questionable position in which a surface
radicalism flatters to deceive.


Postmodernism is not the easiest of terms to define, and
definition is most certainly not the strong suit of modern
French philosophy anyway (“incredulity towards
metanarratives” is Lyotard’s rather cryptic formulation of
postmodern sensibility [4]), so Frederic Jameson’s
introductory remarks are worth noting:

he [Lyotard] has characterised postmodernism, not as
that which follows modernism and its particular
legitimation crisis, but rather as a cyclical moment
that returns before the emergence of ever new
modernisms in the stricter sense [5].

The clear overtones of “eternal recurrence” here help to
situate Lyotard within the nihilistic-Nietzschean strain in
recent French thought (Cf. Derrida, Foucault, and
Baudrillard in particular), although he is also capable of
introducing an optimistically libertarian note into what is
otherwise a fairly dark discourse: “give the public free
access to the memory and data banks” [6] (th.e inadequacy
of such a solution to the so-called “knowledge crisis”
will be dealt with later). Postmodernism is to be seen,
therefore, as being essentially an attitude towards
modernism (however this latter is conceived within a given

Lyotard’s antifoundationalist credentials reveal
themselves in the way he pursues the problem of
legitimation of authority:

if a metanarrative implying a philosophy of history is
used to legitimate knowledge, questions are raised
concerning the validity of the institutions governing
the social bond: these must be legitimated as well.


Legitimation and proof are conspicuously different
entities, although Lyotard is ultimately sceptical about
claims to proof or truth: “Scientists, technicians, and
instruments are purchased not to find truth, but to augment
power” [8]. Truth is a fiction not just for Lyotard,
therefore, but also for those institutions which claim to be
bound by it. Beneath the apparent objectivity lies a
buried, and dominant, discourse of realpolitik: “the
exercise of terror” [9] as Lyotard calls it. Legitimation is
accordingly a question of power, and Lyotard makes the
salient point that, when it comes to socio-political (as
opposed to philosophical) practice, “utterances [are]
expected to be just rather than true” [lO]. This ethical
shift to the argument takes us into the area where
rhetorics operate (justice being a far less logical concept
than truth and more exposed to techniques of persuasion
and emotional manipulation), where it is a question of
language and its indeterminacies – infinite and inescapable
in the poststructuralist view – rather than proof and its
truth-value certainties.

This is a characteristic move for the antifoundationalist
to make but it leaves him with the problem of establiShing
some criterion against which his method and concepts can

be judged (in the absence of truth-value certainties all
strategies are equal, which makes the need for a
legitimating principle imperative if a philosopher is to
maintain credibility with his audience). Derrida gives us
“blind tactics” [11] (whatever that may mean); Baudrillard
“simulacra” [12]; Lyotard, less mysteriously, opts for
“narrativity”: less mysterious, but ultimately no less
unsatisfactory as a justification for a set of theories than
the foregoing. Narrativity simply involves the application
of sequential process (in the fictive sense) to areas other
than fiction.

Narrativity has its problems, as Lyotard willingly
admits, and he is biased towards a certain restricted
version of it, although essentially in favour of its role in
the construction of knowledge. The virtue of narrative is
that it just ~ being in effect its own justification: “it
certifies itself in the pragmatics of its own transmission
without having recourse to argumentation and proof” [13].

Self-justification has a self-evidential ring to it, yet it is
by no means clear why we should accept this as some kind
of honorary (or disguised) ground for knowledge – because
that it how it is really functioning. Like Derridean
erasure it cancels out metaphysical commitments, but it
could be argued that it is in reality more a case of
bracketing, which temporarily suspends but never totally
eliminates the commitments in question.

Allow Lyotard to call life (or any other sequence you
care to name) a narrative, and he will draw you along
with him from then onwards because you have tacitly
accepted the bracketing of alternative explanations (the
manoeuvre is very reminiscent of Barthes’ somewhat
facile, and quasi-imperialist, extension of the domain of
narrative: “The narratives of the world are numberless •.•
narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella,
epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting
(think of Carpaccio’s St Ursula), stained glass windows,
cinema, comics, news item, conversation” [14]). As
deconstructive practice amply demonstrates, all the
tricks of rhetoric and literary criticism can be summoned
into action at this point, and the structure of argument can
begin to take on a certain appearance of authority. If life
is a narrative then it must have a language, and if it has a
language then it can be deconstructed. In Lyotard’s view
narrative is acceptable, whereas metanarrative is not.

Metanarrative is foundational and thus to be avoided, so
we are to try and ensure that life’s narrative (the
individual) is set free from life’s metanarrative (the
systems that control the individual). Once defined and
applied the terms play off each other with ease forcing
reality to conform to their requirements.

But life-as-a-narrative (hardly the most original of
ideas [15]) is a mere analogy with all the limitations any
rhetorical figure inevitably brings in its wake (it is also “a
bowl of cherries”, but how does this help our
understanding of socio-political or epistemological
processes?). The question at issue is not really whether
narrative or metanarrative is preferable, but whether
these terms have any relevance – or reference – within the
socio-political sphere. Cancelling out (or claiming to
cancel out) the metaphysics does not in fact give you that

relevance. It is revealing in this context that Lyotard is
essentially tolerant towards the idea of short-term
contracts (“the temporary contract is in practice
supplanting permanent institutions in the professional,
emotional, sexual, cultural, family and international
domains” [16]). This is precisely the kind of tactical
approach to process we would expect the
phenomenologically-r adical, br acket-w ielding
antifoundationalist to adopt. It conjures up the spectre of,
at best, aimlessness, and at worst opportunism.

Narrative nonetheless provides Lyotard with a basic
anti-foundationalist requirement: a starting-point which is
not in the stricter philosophical sense a ground and
accordingly does not commit one to a metaphysics of
presence; as Vincent Descombes has pointed out,
It [narrative] has always already begun, and is
always the story of a previous story •.• [and] ••• It is
never finished, for in principle the narrator addresses
a listener, or “narratee”, who may in his turn become
the narrator, making the narration of which he has
been the narratee into the narrated of a fresh
narration [17].

Taking temporal succession as an unproblematical given
(no origin, no end, process only) and adding some measure
of order (how much, and under whose aegis, being a matter
of some concern for Lyotard) we arrive at narrative: a
historically undetermined form with all the attractions
that underdetermination has for an antifoundationalist,
who does not want to be trapped in the “infinite regress”
game: “what is the ground of the ground of the ground?” and so on. Metanarrative becomes the enemy, the
foundation which is perceived to limit individual
creativity. Being underdetermined means that the
narrative vests most of its power in the narrator. The
audience is positioned by the narrative, but it is the
narrator who determines the form this positioning will
take, as well as the intensity of the experience. A
narrator takes advantage of a narrative’s legitimating
power and this is a risk to which the audience must always
be exposed, since it is exposed to the rhetorical talents of
the narrator in the act of narration. Discriminating
between narrator-power and narrative-power is not always
so simple, and it is not clear how the dangers inherent in
the former can be avoided in Lyotard’s system.

It is precisely at this point that antifoundationalism is
most liberating and most ideologically suspect. It is
liberating in the way it sidesteps authority (the ground and
those who espouse it) and suspect in the way it encourages
the development of rhetorics as a method of fixing an
audience’S response (rhetoric in this case meaning the
ability to put together an emotionally appealing narrative
sequence through the adroit use of figures of speech, as in
classical rhetoric). Not everyone who can string together
a plausible narrative is politically desirable after all.

There is no necessary connexion between narrative
credibility and political virtue. What becomes crucial in
such cases is the control of narrative, and Lyotard, to his
credi t, is very much exercised by this. His plea to open up
the data banks is an index of his concern, although it can
be considered somewhat naive. Extension of the franchise
has not led to the collapse of elitist political structures
and most likely neither would open access to the data
banks: that would depend on who controlled certain other
“narratives”, most notably the socio-economic one.

Lyotard’s belief that individual opposition to the system
(what he calls “agonistics”) will help to keep the
controllers of narrative honest is touching, but sounds as
if it will have more effect on the individual than the
system. On occasion something much more radical than
agonistics is required – such as an alternative
metanarrative. Feminism is one such recent example of
the virtues of the latter in changing perceptions.

Lyotard is, however, much more interested in the
individual than the collectivity. He speaks approvingly of
a “de legitimation” of “grand narratives” in modern times
(Marxism being one such outmoded grand narrative) and

argues that
We no longer have recourse to the grand narratives we can resort neither to the dialectic of Spirit nor
even to the emancipation of humanity as a validation
for post-modern scientific discourse. But as we have
just seen, the little narrative remains the
quintessential form of imaginative invention, most
particularly in science [18].

Delegitimation presumably pushes us in the direction of
the open-ended narrative, where the individual can fill in
the details as he goes along without being committed to
any predetermined pattern or conclusion such as grand
narrative enforces. We remove the teleological
constraints of grand narrative, in other words, in order to
leave room for individual initiative. This looks nicely
democratic – in the free-market sense of the term anyway and a plea for decontrol can always be relied upon to find
a sympathetic audience in a laissez faire society (“abolish
wage controls!” etc.). If we are to decontrol narrative,
however, we shall need to be a bit more specific about the
nature, and particularly the affective nature, of what we
are decontrolling. To do so we have to return to the basis
of Lyotard’s analogy: literary narrative.

That narrative works on the level of pleasure has been
a commonplace amongst literary theorists from Plato’s
day. Whether this is a good or bad thing and whether it
should be encouraged or discouraged, have been more
contentious matters. Moralists (Plato, neoclassical
aestheticians, Marxists such as Brecht and Lukacs) have
stressed the didactic role of literature, in terms of a given
ideological programme. This moral dimension would no
doubt be classed as metanarrative by Lyotard and
accordingly dispensed with. We might just ask, however,
what we are left with if the moral of the tale, which
often needs untangling by yet another metanarrative
practitioner, the critic, disappears. The narrative with no
point, no moral? Open-endedness from which no valuejudgements can be extracted to help guide future action,
future response? This is no less ideologically-bound a
programme in its privileging of pleasure over moral
responsibility. Its objective is to maximise the “freedom”
(that is, absence of external constraint) of the individual,
whose pleasure-oriented personal narrative is held to
transcend in importance the collective narrative (for
Lyotard, metanarrative) of his fellows. Decontrol of
metanarrative is an attempt to negate the didactic
dimension of literature, and to reduce drastically the
possibility of its constituting a source of politicallyapplicable value-judgements~ Pleasure instead will out
for the postmodernist and poststructuralist. Laissez faire
aesthetics releases the individual but at an ideological

For all the pretension of their rhetoric (“Let us wage a
war on totality” [19]) antifoundationalists invariably seem
to end up arguing on this small-scale, individualistic
basis. Reducing human history – no doubt one of the grand
narratives we should be expelling from our consciousness
– to the individual experience in this manner is seductively
subversive; but is it as anti-authoritarian as it is made out
to be? Or is it instead a new and more insidious form of
social control which works to destabilize collective
political action at source? Tending your own little
narrative, agonistically or otherwise, looks very much
like a conservative tactic to keep change to a manageable
minimum within the confines of a comfortable status .9.!!2..

Nevertheless, Lyotard would seem to feel that
conscious use of agonistics will serve to limit
contemporary power structures, and he fits into a
recognisable, antifoundationalist tradition in this respect.

Baudrillard’s “speculation to the death” [20] and Derrida’s
guerilla-like conception of deconstruction (Western
metaphysics as “an old cloth that must continually,
interminably be undone” [21]) are other examples of this
subversive attitude to dominant power structures, most
notably the authoritarianism felt to be embedded in
language. Lyotard’s guerilla campaign is less nihilistic in

tone than either of the above, but it is still adversarial
and language is its main target:

to speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and
speech acts fall within the domain of a general
agonistics. This does not necessarily mean that one
plays in order to win. A move can be made for the
sheer pleasure of its invention: what else is involved
in that labor of language harassment undertaken by
popular speech and by literature? Great joy is had
in the endless invention of turns of phrase, or words
and meanings, the process behind the evolution of
language on the level of parole. But undoubtedly
even this pleasure depends on a feeling of success
won at the expense of an adversary – at least one
adversary, and a formidable one: the accepted
language, or connotation [22].

The introduction of aesthetics seems a trifle invidious, and
suggests a desire to separate the individual from the world
of action and ideological commitments which compromises
his innocent, game-playing self.

Were Lyotard so easily caught out playing the
apolitical card his work would not merit much sLlstained
attention; but he does keep the political dimension in
mind, and indeed there is a persistent sense of tension in
his work between political and apolitical imperatives
which illustrates the sense of insecurity within the
antifoundationalist position in general. The point of the
fight, for Lyotard, is not just aesthetic, it is also
consciously disruptive:

it is important to increase displacement in the games,
and even to disorient it, in such a way as to make an
unexpected “move” (a new statement). What is
needed if we are to understand social relations in
this manner, on whatever scale we choose, is not
only a theory of communication, but a theory of
games which accepts agonistics as a founding
principle [23].

Lyotard consistently stresses this relationship between
agonstic tactics and “new” states of affairs. Post modern
science is “producing not the known, but the unknown” [24],
we have “a desire for the unknown” [25], and he quotes
approvingly Anatol Rapoport’s view that game theory “is
useful in the same sense that any sophisticated theory is
useful, namely as a generator of ideas” [26]. Presumably
the powers-that-be are an obstacle to our breakthrough to
the territory of unknown ideas (Derrida’s brave new world
“beyond the field of the episteme”) [27].

Put like this the enterprise sounds all very exciting and
it would seem reactionary to raise objections to it (who
would weant to be against ideas, new statements, or the
unknown?). But we might justifiably ask what we are
supposed to do when we reach the promised land: go forth
again presumably – singly, and single-mindedly. The
progression would appear to be from modernism to
post modernism to modernism to ••• infinity? Yet again the
ahistoricist (and I would argue anti-social) nature of the
exercise comes strongly to the fore. Those going forward
have no past and are continually in the business of


rejecting the present in an interminable process of
cancelling and erasure. It is an uncoordinated guerilla
campaign conducted by alienated solipsists – and one
wonders how successful that would be. Lyotard begins to
edge towards Derrida’s “blind tactics” position here and
that can make his rhetoric – “let us be witnesses to the
unpresentable; let us activate the differences” [28] sound rather hollow. When all is said and done he has
given us little more than a network of analogies and
backed it up by nothing stronger than a rhetorical call to
action, which translates into something fairly trite like
“accentuate the negative”. We must take it on trust that
this will have any significant effect on entrenched

The question of rhetoric is crucial in this context. In
an antifoundationalist world rhetoric must become an ever
more important aspect of philosophical discourse. Indeed
some recent commentators have gone so far as to assert
that philosophy is little else than a series of more-or-Iess
inspired fictions and thus wide open to techniques of
literary analysis; philosophy, argues Christopher Norris,
“is always bound up with linguistic structures which
crucially influence and complicate its logical workings”
[29]. Lyotard himself insists that narrativity encroaches
on philosophy as a legitimation device more than is
usually acknowledged; in the case of Platonic dialogue,
for example, “does it not fall into the same trap [as
poetry] by using narrative as its authority?” [30] This is
the radical side of antifoundationalism and once again it
has a certain surface attractiveness. We are all postphilosophers now it would appear to be saying.

Philosophy’s pretensions to truth have been unmasked,
another blow has been struck against authority (if Plato,
that arch-opponent of narrative aesthetics, can be
betrayed by his own practice, who can argue the case for
anti-rhetorical rationality?). Ignore the grand narratives
(societies), the injunction goes, and concentrate on the
little narratives (selves). In the absence of foundations
try tactics, try strategy. However tactics and strategy
assume the necessity of persuasion, and that means
rhetoric. Which must lead us to ask the question: what are
the conditions under which a given rhetoric gains
plausibility? The answer, I would suggest, points to the
poverty of antifoundationalism, and must seriously call
into question the too-easy collapse of philosophy into
fiction, proof into rhetoric.

Rhetoric can hardly be neutral: it is always in the
service of an ideological position. To be a rhetorician, to
engage in the task of analysing others’ rhetorical
practices (declared by them or otherwise) is to position
your audience. Success in this game depends on an ability
to manipulate the emotions, and its measure will be the
size of the nuisance-value you can create in your field of
activity – which is to say that market forces apply.

Derrida must be considered a notable success in these
terms of reference. His influence can be seen at work
throughout a range of contemporary French cultural
debates (as Lucien Goldmann has put it, “Derrida has a
catalytic function” [31] in this sphere), and when it comes
to American academic life there have been some
spectacular victories: “the fact is that deconstruction
effectively displaced other intellectual programs in the
minds and much of the work of the literary avant-garde”
[32]. Derrida’s antifoundationalist crusade grows in
credibility as it grows in numbers of supporters willing
and able to inflict nuisance-value. Antifoundationalism
works hard at overturning traditional authority, but it
substitutes another kind of authority in its stead: the
authority which emanates from charisma. To answer the
question posed above, it is under the conditions of charisma
(exercised in this instance through the ultra-elitist
technique of linguistic ingenuity) that rhetoric comes to
attain plausibility. Not everyone will misuse rhetoric,
but some will – some always do. It was to avoid this
outcome that foundationalism was devised. The spectre it
set out to exorcise was the spectre of clever, and possibly

unscrupulous, language-game theorists (the sophists are
always with us) exploiting the innocent.

Foundationalism works, therefore, to limit the abuse of
language power. The risk we run when we ditch it
unceremoniously is that we expose all the world’s
vulnerable little narratives, not so much to a tyrannical
grand narrative, as to the verbally-fluent, charisma-based
narrative which will seek to deflect it from connecting
with any narrative rooted in collective action and a desire
for socio-economic change. Power-games are all too
often dominated by those who shout the loudest or talk
the fastest, and the spontaneous response they demand
from their supporters is essentially ahistoricist and
emotional rather than historically-conscious and rational.

Reducing philosophy to fiction effectively removes some
of the most important safeguards against abuses of power.

Foundations (taking the notion in a fairly broad sense) can
be justified on pragmatic grounds too.

Lyotard is certainly no advocate of rhetorical excess
and he is acutely aware that epistemological problems
are very often solved by a fairly brutal application of
realpolitik. He identifies with what he calls “an equation
between wealth, efficiency, and truth”, and argues, with
considerable justification, that it is generally a case of
No money, no proof – and that means no verification
of statements and no truth. The games of scientific
language become the games of the rich, in which
whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being
right [33].

Lyotard is at his most perceptive at points like this, and he
pursues, in exemplary antifoundationalist fashion, the
misuse of power when institutions monopolise the
legitimation privilege. He is also perceptive about the
utilitarianism prevalent in so many of our institutions (a
trend he links to the pervasive influence of cybernetic
theory in modern Western culture) where function has
come to be considered all-important:

The question (overt or implied) now asked by the
professionalist student, the State, or institutions of
higher education is no longer “Is it true?” put “What
use is it?” In the context of the mercantilization of
knowledge, more often than not this question is
equivalent to: “Is it saleable?” And in the context
of power-growth: “Is it efficient?” •.• What no longer
makes the grade is competence as defined by other
criteria true/false, just/unjust, etc. [34]
Few left-wing theorists would disagree with such a
reading of recent cultural history in which the autonomy
of higher education has been seriously eroded. Where the
problems start is where the state or the utilitarian
imperative gets lumped together with a range of other
“authorities” such as logic and foundationalism. The
analogy just does not always hold. The state may be like
a formal system, or a language, but that does not mean it
~ a formal system or a language.

The analogy goes so far
and no further – the trick is not to give in to the rhetorical
manoeuvre in the first


Lyotard has the virtue – which most
antifoundationalists do not – that he is open to the
political dimension of his theories. Having said that, the
solutions he offers are pretty weak. Indulge in an
agonistics in your philosophical discourse and you will be
striking a blow against the imperialist state and the
multinationals, because you will be denying authoritarian
principles of legitimation. Avoid grounds (they are
probably an illusion anyway) and put your faith in
narrativity. Treat all sequences as narratives and their
legitimation procedures will be revealed to you. Stick
with little narratives because the big ones deceive you
(and are· no more than consensually-accepted fictions
anyway), and wrest control of legitimation from the
powers-that-be since “the language game of legitimation
is not state-political, but philosophical”[35]. It is a
basically libertarian programme, with all the lacunae
libertarianism almost inevitably involves ‘(just how do you
get the state to pay attention to the efforts of isolated
individuals?), and it is worth stressing that libertarianism
– of a greater or lesser kind – seems to be an active
ingredient in the work of the leading antifoundationalists.

Derrida declares himself against philosophical
totalitarianism and seeks the opening in the totality which
“liberates time and genesis” [36]; Baudrillard argues for a
free market of signs and meanings “in which all classes
eventually acquire the power to participate” [37].

Individual freedom seems to be the major motivating factor
on display.

All of this is to take place in the aftermath of
foundationalism’s collapse. Perhaps the collapse is more
assumed than real, however, and perhaps all that
antifoundationalism has achieved is to make us aware, if
regrettably so given the authoritarian overtones, of
foundationalism’s virtues. In the process
antifoundationalism slots into one of Western philosophy’s
longest-running debates. In modern times the immediate
point of reference is the sceptical tradition from Hume
onwards, in which commonsense beliefs (the uniformity of
nature, personal identity, etc.) are called into question
because of their ungroundability in deductive logic
(Derrida is similarly sceptical about identity [38]). Hume’s
radical scepticism is calling into doubt the regularity of
sequences in the physical world, or at the very least our
ability to prove the necessary presence of such regularity
through the medium of sense-exper ience. There is nothing
to legitimate future action, in other words, since there is
no guarantee of continuity, and Hum~ introduces “custom”
as the enabling mechanism which will allow us to
continue discourse in the face of the essential contingency
of things. Having reached the kind of dead end radical
sceptics can hardly avoid, he backtracks, in pragmatic
fashion, into the world of action:

Without the influence of custom, we should be
entirely ignorant of every matter of fact beyond
what is immediately present to the memory and the
senses. We should never know how to adjust means
to ends, or to employ our natural powers in the
production of any effect. There would be an end at
once of all action, as well as of the chief part of
speculation [39].

(Berkeley undertakes a similar backtrack from the dead
end of his sceptical speculation, but it brings him to God
rather than society which gives it less relevance and
accessibility to the current debate than Hume’s move.)
Hume’s solution points the way the socially-conscious
(taking the term in its broadest sense) sceptic has to move.

The sceptic who is not socially-conscious may proceed to
embrace contingencywith enthusiasm (that world of
uncontaminated, non-originary signs Derrida is so fond of
evoking, for example>; but he must still provide some
credible substitute for grounds if he wishes public
discourse and dialogue to continue, as opposed to


automatic writing or private and hence inaccessible
language-games. Antifoundationalism often flirts with
the world that lies beyond scepticism’s apparent dead end,
and instead of “Hume’s backtrack” performs what might be
called “Derrida’s leap”. In the face of closure, resort to
the pun and free-associate your way over the obstacle of
logocentrist limits and into the much-desired condition of
permanent contingency, where “unheard of thoughts are
required” [40]. No doubt this will have a very salutary
effect on the complacent philosophical mainstream, even
if an unqualified commitment to the “unheard” has more of
the character of faith than philosophy.

The attitude adopted towards contingency is crucial
here and will constitute an index of the nuisance-value
the antifoundationalist in question will have for the
philosophical establishment. The current revival of
interest in rhetoric indicates the direction in which the
search is moving. It is rhetoric, I would argue, that lies
behind Lyotard’s narrativity, Baudrillard’s “speculation”,
and Derrida’s anti-logocentrist word-play. Rhetoric is a
mode at once more flexible and more insidious
(ideologically speaking) than “custom”. It leads
ultimately to a very self-regarding individualism which at
its worst is as elitist as anything twentieth-century
critique has to offer. Derrida at his densest, the Yale
critics at their most punningly ingenious, Baudrillard at
his most cryptic, are less likely to start a revolution than
to draw attention to their sheer marginality in the
cultural debate. The practice of erasure begins to look
like a form of self-imposed exile from the business of
adjusting means to ends. We might all agree that the
hermeneutical turn is a valuable., and maybe even
necessary one for philosophy to take, without thereby
agreeing that all discourse is’ merely a game in which
linguistic dexterity is the individual’s greatest – perhaps
only – ambition. The latent nihilism of the proceedings
reveals itself particularly clearly at such points. It
presents as action in the void – a self-created void, which
is a poor response to powr.

L yotard perhaps escapes the worst of this censure, but
even this acceptable face of antifoundationalism can take
refuge in cloudy rhetoric when his argument has been
brought to a conclusion.

The answer is: Let us wage war on totality; let us be
witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the
differences and save the honor of the name [41].

This can mean anything or nothing. Whose totality?

(anything can be. a totality if you want it to be, just as
anything can be a narrative). Which differences? Whose
honor? Whose name? Isn’t witnessing a rather passive
activi ty for a radical to be undertaking? (close reading
here gives us “let us” (call to action) followed by
“witness” (passive state), the latter effectively
cancelling out the former in an agonistic stalemate).

What are those in charge of the totality doing while “we”
are witnessing the unpresentable? There is a distinct
tendency for antifoundationalism to marginalise or
exclude itself from the power discourse in this way.

When rhetoric takes over from proof it tends to look
much like this; and the force of such proclamations
evaporates the minute you start to ask yourself “What does
it mean?” Unpacking the rhetoric leaves us with only
unfulfilled – and for all practical purposes probably
unfulfillable – desires. Philosophy has been collapsed
into fiction and the fiction has been found wanting. The
answer to “What does it mean?” is: solipSism; that is the
politics of antifoundationalism – and its pover~
If we treat antifoundationalism as a form of radical
scepticism we can see why rhetoric has been called on to
plug the gap filled by custom in Hurne. Without
rhetorically-based strategies we would be left with
silence, and silence in the world of action equals
acquiescence. Rhetoric certainly appears to be directed
against acquiescence with the philosophical status .9!::!£,
but it merely serves to reinforce the ahistoricist cast to
antifoundationalism, locking it into an eternal present

with no reference (except a negative one in the act of
distancing oneself) to past states-cf-affairs. It encourages
you to keep pushing forward into the unknown as an article
of faith: “new” equalling “good” from this point of view.

Rhetoric functions, therefore, as a pragmatics to counter
the negative, discourse-destroying aspects of
antifoundationalism. This can be extended, as it is in
Lyotard, into a confrontational agonistics which gives a
seemingly dialectical character to the enterprise; yet the
scale remains restricted, with the little narrative of the
individual (how we get to the “us” in Lyotard’s closing
remarks is by no means obvious) taking precedence over the
grand narrative of society.

The stance is libertarian and it can certainly be
described as anti-authoritarian in intent; but not antiauthoritarian in any hegemony-threatening way.

Antifoundationalism, if taken far enough, remains an
essentially peripheral activity, much in the way that any
thoroughgoing scepticism does, and its ahistoricism does
not negate the problems of history. It simply leaves
someone else in control of them. Good intentions and
messianic pronouncements are just not enough to
destablise the authoritarians in the long term.

Antifoundationalism is fundamentally SUSpICIOUS of the
use of meta-Ievels in any discourse, and while there is a
certain justification for this suspicion it can be taken too
far – and have unacceptable consequences for the leftwing theorist. If meta-Ievels are to be equated with
authority then it seems inevitable that the radical will
have to be opposed to them: especially if the radical is
committed to the idea of a paradigm shift. History is
littered with examples of theory-bound, foundation-bound,
institutions which suppressed dissent (that is, anything that
called dominant theory or foundation seriously into
question) and the radical is certainly justified in referring
to this history of intellectual suppression as a defence of
his agonistic practice. What modern antifoundationalism
appears to be demanding, however, is not so much a

paradigm shift as a permanent attitude of scepticism
towards any and aU paradigms. Paradigms and metalevels are deemed to be bad things by definition under this
reading, and their practical utility in specific sociopolitical circumstances is denied in favour of some kind of
anarchistically-inclined permanent revolution. Lyotard
will allow a “multiplicity of finite meta-arguments” just
as long as they are “subject to eventual cancellation”

Yet surely it is not so much a case of meta-Ievels being
bad by definition, as by their ideological function. It
depends, in other words,’ on your relative positioning in the
ideological debate. We can only judge a given position by
its likely effects, and as I have tried to show, the radical
sceptical one with its disdain for means-ends policie.s is
most likely to result in exile from the discourse on power.

Lyotard’s agonistics is more viable than most strategies in
this area, being directed against specific cultural abuses
(the knowledge crisis, the imposition of cyberneticsinspired functionalism on intellectual enquiry) but it
remains self-defeating in the way it drives towards the
abstract (“Let us wage war on totality”) while
simultaneously denying individuals access to those
“metanarratives” (or modes of explanation) which enable
them to maximise the effect of their anti-authoritarian
actions. Lyotard wants action to remain on the individual
level and he wants it to resist the interpretative reflex:

“It is necessary to posit the existence of a power that
destabilizes the capacity for explanation” [43]. The brief
glimpse of dialectics we are afforded here is soon
swallowed up in an eternal recurrence of sociallyunaccountable anti-interpretation, as Lyotard edges ever
closer towards the “blind tactics” school.

Individualism of action plus abstraction of goals is not
a particularly good combination for social change,
especially when accompanied by a radical scepticism
which makes a virtue out of contradiction for its own sake
with scant regard for local conditions or overall aims.

Despite Lyotard’s political perspective his work is still
shot through with the ideologically suspect motives which
mark modern, and most particularly French,

[I) John Fekete, “Modernity in the Literary Institution: Strategic AntiFoundational Moves”, in Fekete (ed.), The Structural Allegory,
Manchester, 1984, p. 228.

[2] Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, Oxford, 1985, p. 159.

[3] Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism, Brighton, 1982, p.


[4] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: ~ Report .2!!.

Knowledge, Manchester, 1-984, p. xxiv.

t5]~ p. xvi.

[6]~ p. 67.

[7] ~ p. xxiv.

[8]~ p. 46.

[9]~ p. 64.

[IO]~ p. 33.

[I I) Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, Evanston, lIIinois, 1973, p.


[12] Jean Saudrillard, “The Structural Law of Value and the Order of
Simulacra”, in Fekete, ~ fib pp. 54-73.

[13] Lyotard, p. 27.

[14] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Glasgow, 1977, p. 79.

[I5] Literary history is full of examples of this theme! To cite but one
obvious instance, that seminal text of the English novel tradition, John
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, is conceived in this form and stands in a long
line of religious allegories which make use of the idea.

[16] Lyotard, p. 66.

[17] ~odern French Philosophy, Cambridge, 1980, p. 186.

[18] Lyotard, p. 60. While it would be possible to argue for Marxism or
Hegelianism as antifoundational (in the sense that dialectics implies a
continual process of change and involves a rejection of classical logid,
Lyotard’s reading would seem to preclude them being so in the
postmodernist sense.

[l9]~ p. 82.

[20] Fekete, ~ fib p. 59.

[21] Jacques Derrida, Positions, London, 1981, p. 24.

[22] Lyotard, p. 10.

p. 16.

p. 60.

p. 67.

p. 60.

[27] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Baltimore and London, 1976, p. 93.

[28] Lyotard, p. 82.

[29] The Deconstructive ~ London, 1983, p. 3.

[30] Lyotard, p. 29.

[3n Quoted by Wallace Martin in Introduction to J. Arac, W. Godzich, and
W. Martin (eds.), The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America,
–Minneapolis, I 983,p. XIX:- – – [32] Paul Bove, “Variations on Authority: Some Deconstructive
Transformations of the New Criticism”, l!lli6 p. 6.

[33] Lyotard, p. 45.

[34] ~ .p. 51.

[35] ~ p. 33.

[36] Writing and Difference, Chicago, London and Henley, 1978, p. 26.

[37] Fekete, ~ fib p. 62.

[38] “Derrida, echoing David Hume, reminds us that because of retardement
(delay) the originating factor operative in classical self-identity can
never really be reflected by the expression (nomen) which is its “mirror”,
for during the “time it takes” for the reflexive act to catch the originating
factor, the latter has changed”. Robert Magliola, Derrida .2!!. the ~end,
West Lafayette, Indiana, 1984, p. 23.

[39] Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed .. L. A. Selby-Bigge, rev.

P. H. Nidditch, Oxford, 1975, p. 45.

[40] Speech and Phenomena, p. 115.

[41] Lyotard, p. 82.

[42]~ p. 66.

[43]~ p. 61.





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