and the Philosophy of Caution
Recently, Radical Philosophy was offered a piece by JeanFrancois Lyotard, one of the leading lights of the postmodernist
movement, entitled ‘Svelte Discourse and the Posunodern
Question’. The piece came not from Lyotard himself but from
his translator, Mark S. Roberts. So odd did this particular piece
of writing look (‘remarks … without theoretical pretensions or
specific order’ as the author freely admitted1) that the editorial
collective did not at first know how to treat it. Was it perhaps
‘news from France’? (and hence the responsibility of the
journal’s news editor); ‘comment’? (a halfway house between
news and article status where problem cases often are consigned); or an article? (subject, therefore, to the full editorial
refereeing procedure). It did not quite seem to fall naturally
into any available category.
In the event, ‘article’ was the final choice, but to no avail,
because as an article ‘Svelte Discourse’ met rejection at the
hands of the RP editorial collective meeting, the consensus
being that it did not satisfy the requirements of philosophical
discourse as conventionally understood by a journal like RP.
Comments such as ‘off the top of the head’ were voiced frequently about the piece at the meeting, and indicate the general
drift of the discussion. This is by no means the first time such
an accusation has been levelled against recent French
philosophy (cf. anti-Derrida commentators) and there is a distinct sense of unease in English philosophical discourse about
allowing elements of this alien discourse to creep into our own.
But this particular case of rejection (to which I was a party)
does raise some interesting points about the nature of the
respective discourses (what we each require of, and expect
from, philosophy) which I feel are worth further exploration.
As the author of an essentially critical piece on Lyotard in- RP
44, (‘Lyotard and the Politics of Antifoundationalism’), I would
stress that I have not substantially changed my mind on the
demerits of his work (I still think it is ideologically somewhat
dubious); but I now wonder whether it might not be more
productive, and instructive, to examine him in a slightly different, less overtly critical manner. I am advocating a bracketing exercise, in other words, in order to determine whether we
might be missing something by failing to create a space for
dialogue with such material. This means treating the RP
editorial collective decision as a symbolic act in terms of
relations between the discourses, rather than being concerned
with the actual mechanics of that decision. Very briefly, I
would characterise the difference between the two opposed
discourses as being that between a philosophy informed by a
sense of caution, and one informed by a sense of risk.
What I would like to consider is whether we can identify
areas of common concern between Lyotard-discourse, as ex-
emplified in its least forthcoming form in ‘Svelte Discourse’,
and socialist philosophy, English model (inasmuch as one can
so generalise), and see where that exercise will take us in terms
of rethinking the nature, preoccupations, and effect of our own
discourse. It could well be that not just the content of the argument but the style also – and it is in the area of style where
the problems really lie, I think – will have significant things to
tell us about the limitations of the philosophy of caution. We
may happily choose to retain these limitations (limitations can
be beneficial in protecting the ideals of a discourse) but we
may also choose to modify our relatively hostile opinion of the
alien discourse, and perhaps even accord it a role in the more
general socialist philosophy enterprise of confronting and undermining late capitalism and its cultural production.
There now follows a quick paraphrase of ‘Svelte Discourse’
and some surface reactions.
Lyotard presents an argument against capitalism, which he
considers to be our greatest current cultural problem (no dissent here from the Left):
Everybody thinks that the greatest problem facing
society today is that of the State. But this is a serious
mistake. The problem which stands above all others, including that of the modem State, is that of capital.
Capitalism is conceived of as an act of will which involves the
ceaseless exploitation of resources, and brooks no inhibition of
its restless dynamic:
Capitalism is one of the names for modernity, and
presupposes that the will is invested with infinity …
capitalism has known how to subordinate itself to the
infinite desire to know – which is what animates the
sciences – and to submit this realization to the technical
criteria at its heart, namely, the rule of performativity
that requires the constant optimization of the input/output relation.
States and political classes serve capitalism, although they
sometimes obstruct its progress; yet capitalism remains the
primary enemy, and ways of countering its excesses need to be
found if the desired condition of ‘justice in the domain of
politics’is to be realised. The method of counteraction posited
is ‘sveltness’: a guerilla-like attitude of flexible response to
capitalism’s many and insistent pressures:
Stendahl had already said it at the beginning of the 19th
Century: the ideal is no longer the physical strength of
classical man, it is suppleness, speed, the capacity for
change (go dancing at night, wage war the following
morning). Sveltness, readiness: at once an Italian and
In general terms there is much for a socialist philosopher to
sympathize with in these sentiments: ‘sveltness’ in p~~ular,
with its intimations of scepticism in the face of capltallSm’s
anti-rationalistic ‘it works’ philosophy, seems worthy of support and even elaboration. So what is the problem?
The problem is that to an English-trained philosopher
‘Svelte Discourse’ hardly qualifies as philosophical argument at
all. Positions are established by means of assertion and
generalization ‘Everybody thinks that the greatest problem facing
society today is that of the State;’
‘Capitalism is one of the names for modernity;’
As a piece of philosophical discourse, therefore, this piece
of writing does not really qualify. There are some interesting
ideas – ‘sveltness’ is a bizarre concept in a philosophical context, yes, but an intriguing and quite original one, neverthel~s
– but these ideas are not being harnessed to concepts and logical structures of argument. Lyotard often gives the impression
of letting his (ample) imagination run away with him, and it is
probably a hostage to fort~ne to decl~e that ‘the. followin~
remarks are without theoretical pretenSIOns or speCific order .
The average English-trained critic pounces on the throwaway
remark (in such cases careless talk costs reputations) and the
reasons for rejection in our tradition, even at the radical end of
the spectrum, become abundantly clear. There is just not
enough argument to meet the standards of profession~
philosophical discourse, and the political overtones are basically gratuitous to an English audience.
‘Language is the entire social bond’
– with an almost complete absence of proof or evidence to
support them. The periodic appearance of ‘if’ is as close as we
get to any feeling of debate: ‘If what yo.u c~l conte~~rary
French philosophy has been postmodern m thiS way, It IS because it has focused its discourse on the deconstruction of
language.’ But a few hypotheticals do not add up to a reasoned
argument. Redefinition abounds – capitalism is ‘one of the
names for modernity’, or ‘a metaphysical figure’, or ‘the real
romanticism’, for example – and anyone can win an argument
by using the redefinition ploy. What is precisely at issue is
whether such casually-assumed equivalences are justified. In
fact we are given no clear definitions of either modernity or
postmodernity in the piece, which does not help ma~ers (es:pecially in a movement which covers such an alarmmgly WIde
spectrum of response, from conservative reconciliationism to
avant garde poststructuralism). Moving from ‘if’ to ‘because’
is a considerable leap and not one that can simply be assumed
(with one mighty bound L~otard was free …). Pr~f in th.e
guise of intermediate, cautiously-constructed, expliCItly lOgically-related steps of argument must be on view if this is ~o
qualify as philosophical argument, rather than mere rhet?nc
(the anti-rhetorical bias remains strong in the Anglo-Amencan
It likewise remains to be proved that, for example, Augustine was ‘the first modern’, as Lyotard claims. And we might
ask, why Augustine anyway? Perhaps he is felt l? be so
cause of the anxiety-ridden quality of The ConfessIOns. This IS
a possible line of argument (anxiety being a key element of !he
modernist aesthetic), but it does need to be spelled out, bemg
by no means self-evidential or beyond all possible debate. Association of ideas, however, is a poor method to employ for
spelling-out. It simply comes across as off-the-top-of-theheadness.
A demolition job on such material is relatively easy to perform:
its faults and silences declare themselves quite openly and positively invite attack. In common with Lyotard’s The Postmodern
Condition there is much political naivete and loose reasoning
on offer. Either the author has not thought through the full implications of his remarks (bad philosoph~cal practice in itst:lt)
or he has disguised ideological commItments, conservative
variety, which are seeking to trap the unwary. But this is to
remain in the critical mode of ‘Lyotard and the Politics of Antifoundationalism’. What we might now do is temporarily to
suspend value-judgement and ask what the piece is doing in its
own terms of reference. Adopting a sympathetic mode we
might come up with the following form of analysis.
The argument has an anti-capitalist orientation, so we might
follow that route of shared concern for a while. Capitalism is
the enemy. Capitalism equals modernity. CapitJlism does not
like order. Therefore modernity, order, and romanticism are all
enemies. Whose enemies? ‘Everyone thinks’ … but not
everyone thinks that capitalism is beyond salvation: ‘I do not
mean the owners and managers of capital … this applies to
workers as well.’ So here we have a resistance group (apparently unspecifiable in traditional class ~rms) ~~o wi~h !o
cultivate postmodernity, disorder, and antrromanttcIsm .wlthm
the province of capitalism; and this may even mean disorder
within the ranks of the workers, at which point we are attacking
the most favoured category in Marxist sociological terms. But
as Lyotard notes, for all socialism’s efforts ‘Capitalism still ~s a
figure’ . Point taken: more than a century after Capltal
capitalism still is a figure – and if it continues a figure perhaps
our traditional analyses no longer really apply. The POStmarxlSt
argument depends heavily on Marxism’s perceived political
failure in the West, and though it cannot be adjudged to constitute an argument, that ‘still is’ has a powerful rhetorical
presence which compels critical reflection.
Our area of shared concern seems to be fast dissolving.
Perhaps we need to go for the spirit of Marxism (‘~ was
well aware of all this, especially in the Manifesto. He tned to
show at what point the figure of capitalism became incoherent’), and construct a new mode of being to c~unteract
our common enemy. In Lyotard’s terms of reference thiS would
seem to be a case of ‘go dancing at night, wage war the following morning’. Dancing, warring: this m~gh~ stand as a d~scrip
tion of the infinitely flexible, post-caPltallSt human. be~g .of
Marxist speculation, and we would seem to be movmg mto a
Marxist frame of reference now.
But hang on a moment, Steiner wrote about concentration
camp guards who read Goethe at night, tortured and killed in
the morning. 2• Sveltness there, surely? Psychologically supple,
semiotically fast, and aesthetically changeable, no question
about that – and there seems something very wrong indeed
with a set of preferred qualities that can just as easily characterise fascist terrorism as the enemies of capitalism. We appear
to have reached a limit at this point, and we cannot conclusively prove shared concern in the anti-capitalist sense.
Lyotard may well have got the spirit right – the antiauthoritarian, celebratory spirit that has informed so many
revolutions – but spirit alone cannot override the more insistent
objections our discourse raises (whether assertion answers
theory, or whether transitory states-of-affairs demolish the
claims of over-arching theory, for example). We need now to
turn to other topics to see if bracketing can yield more substantial benefits.
Lyotard’s remarks on language look to be part of an antitheoretical turn in recent French work on the subject. In
common with the poststructuralist movement, Lyotard stresses
the limitations of language in the communication of thought
Like Derrida before him, Lyotard celebrates the non-correspondence of language and meaning, and the logical impossibility of plenitude being achieved in either communication or
meaning. Meaning is held to be a local and transitory
phenomenon at best, and the idea of meanings holding over
time (say, in texts) is considered a delusion. ‘Language is not
an “instrument of communication”‘, as Lyotard puts it; which
proves to be an interesting statement in that it contradicts itself
in the act of making its point If language does not communicate, it surely cannot communicate its incommunicability.
Nevertheless, paradox has traditionally had an important role to
play in philosophical discourse (Zeno and onwards) and the
relentless seeking after and cultivation of paradox that marks
out poststructuralist and postmodernist discourse has at least
some antecedents in the analytical tradition (in the presence of
a contradiction in a logical proof, as a case in point, assume
what you want). Paradox becomes a method of striking at
capitalism’s colonisation of language; at its desire for ‘optimal
performativity’ in this domain.
Lyotard’s conception of language as ‘an highly complex archipelago formed of regimes of domains and statements’
recalls that of Wittgenstein, with his ‘multiplicity of languagegames’;3 but it is even less of an organic entity than the latter’s
‘ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and
new houses, and of houses with additions from various
periods,.4 Lyotard refuses to entertain the notion of local communication that Wittgenstein’s adjacent neighbourhoods suggest, and he insists on the impossibility of translation: ‘we cannot even translate a statement from one regime … into one from
another’; from descriptive to prescriptive modes, for instance.
There are echoes of Quine here, and of deconstruction also – as
when Lyotard asserts the existence of ‘an irremedial opacity at
the very heart of language’. For Geoffrey Hartmann, the
hallmark of Derrida’s writing style is an ‘elegant opacity’S
which declines to reconcile ‘warring truths’.6 Paradox is being
allowed free rein in both cases, whereas in analytically-based
philosophy it is closed off once it has achieved its objective of
enabling you to make your desired assumption. We might be
looking at the difference between paradox as a tactical weapon,
and paradox as a desired state in its own right at such points.
The latter is something our discourse cannot really
countenance. You have crossed over a boundary into another
mode of thinking (perhaps poetry) by embracing paradox in
such an unequivocal manner.
We are supposed to welcome the absence of standardly-perceived communication in our postmodem world. In such a
world language forever misleads us, cheats us, raises false
hopes in us: never does what we want it to, what we think it
does, or what we assume it must. Within language there is not
the possibility of clarity, but instead the necessary and ineradicable presence of unclarity; unclarity which will infect our
every utterance, no matter how carefully formulated. Clarity’s
absence is to be flaunted in the face of the authoritarians, who
are held to be refusing to acknowledge the chaos that lies at the
heart of things. It is the postmodemist’s role to ‘underscore the
paradoxes’ that make this point Lyotard contends that this
chaos has been identified by a succession of ‘postrnoderns’
over the centuries, of whom Laurence S teme is cited as oneprominent example. Sterne provides a crossover into an
English tradition, and one at least tangentially related to
philosophy: the tradition of empiricism and scepticism associated with John Locke and David Hume.
Given the echoes of several Anglo-American discourses
that we have noted in ‘Svelte Discourse’, it is perhaps
gradually being rendered more acceptable to that cultural tradition. Zeno, Wittgenstein, Quine, Steme, Locke and Hume serve
to edge Lyotard towards at least a measure of respectability.
The acceptability-level increases as we move from ‘opacity’ to
‘incommensurability’. Opacity is a very suspect notion in our
discourse, but once you manage to reach incommensurability
you are on safer ground in the company of those accredited
philosophers Kuhn, Lakatos, and their followers?· Incommensurability is not taken to constitute an excuse for a lapse into
opacity in Anglo-American philosophy, however, whereas it all
too often is in its French counterpart. Difference declares itself
with a vengeance at this point Opacity is a weapon turned
against the powers-that-be in the one tradition, a philosophically-inadmissible mode of argument in the other. Encouragement confronts exclusion, and shared concern is not so easily
pursued in this area either.
Difference declares itself too in the attitude adopted at
chaos-at-the-heart-of-things. Marxists do not much like chaos.
Chaos may be deemed to exist at the heart of capitalism (that
complex of contradictions) but it is a Marxist’s duty to suggest
ways to correct the disequilibrium for the benefit of all the victims of this unjustly-organised system. Marxism retains a
rationalist orientation in this regard. If the world is out of joint,
it is so because certain human beings have manoeuvred it into
that position for specific ideological reasons; that is, to serve
their interests for detenninable socio-political and socioeconomic ends. To admit chaos as a necessary part of our ontology is to admit the impossibility of goal-directed action, socially-engineered change, and the revolutionary overthrow of
the oppressing order. It is to admit anarchism as the true nature
of things. ‘Without specific order’ becomes the most revealing,
and indictable, of admissions for the anti-Lyotardean.
The ideological problem that comes to the fore at this point
might be stated as follows: opacity serves imperialism, because
imperialism will be the most likely beneficiary of the babble of
incommensurable, and hence politically unhamessable, discourses which will be the outcome if we embrace postmodern
sensibility. Which might be to say that opacity serves neo-conservatism. Yet Lyotard insists no: ‘I don’t really believe that’.
Not as long as he can fall back on sveltness, his strategy for
coping with the individual experience of incommensurability.
‘It is above all a question of language, because language expends very little energy to create from the new (Einstein at
Zurich)’. Leaving aside for the moment the vexed question of
the relationship between language and thought (was Einstein’s
really a linguistic revolution in physics?; is it really language
that challenges paradigms?), this is an odd observation to make
if language is imprinted with an ‘irremedial opacity’ at its core.
If this were indeed the case it is hard to see how we should ever
establish a paradigm in the first place, let alone challenge its
hegemony. How would we ever agree on what constituted the
new? (except through the exercise of terror or some such
similarly authoritarian behavior). The manner in which ‘readiness’ would recognise and appropraite its object remains unclear, therefore unreproducible for revolutionary purposes. The
spectre of adventurism raises its head – and most Marxists are
not going to be too happy with that.
Neither does the readiness seem transactional, and thus the
kind of attitude that could promote the desirable quality of
revolutionary solidarity. The Zen reference carries that implication of incommunicable experience which alters individual behaviour – but only in a solipsistic sense. The vision is ultimately somewhat Leibnizian: of a monadically-structured culture in which ‘learning, inventing, knowing, and circulating’
remain essentially internalised activities that cannot escape
from their fixed position in the archipelago. ‘Language machines don’t cost much’, but neither do they seem to communicate much. Reconciling their sveltness with capitalism’s
‘infinity of the will’ appears to be a case of reconciling the incommunicable to the unheeding.
Reconciliation has become a buzzword of metatheory of
late and it is fairly easy to pick it apart in an act of
ideologiekritik – to reconcile can be to undennine dissentS yet in Lyotard’s case there might well be a justification for the
reconciliationist impulse. The svelte individual and the infinitely-wilful system can stand as models for the raw materials
of any social theory, socialism included. Areas of conflict here
are many and varied. The individual can all too often appear to
be an anarchistically-inclined entity to the prevailing political
system, no matter how liberation-conscious the latter may consider itself to be. Similarly, the system (whether corporate
capitalism or corporate state) can appear to be authoritarian and
oppressive on occasion to even the most socially-minded of individuals. Sveltness may well act as a reconciliatory corrective
to the latter condition, even if it does carry unfortunate overtones of unpredictability of behaviour.
Not all individuals, however, share the same objectives, and
not all conceive of themselves as victims of the system. Some
wish to use their sveltness to rise in the hierarchy and attain
positions of power and influence over others. Authoritarian
sveltness is only too easy to imagine. Armies and police forces
frequently manage to go dancing at night, wage war the following morning. For sveltness here read cynicism perhaps. Even
so, Lyotard has pinpointed an area of real difficulty for social
theorists: the nature of the balance between individual and system. It is yet another area of shared concern where the
problems are more apparent than the solutions; indeed, where
the presence of each of the opposing elements seems to
preclude a solution. Lyotard is at least right in his assertion that
it is necessary in some sense (the ‘sense’ being the focus of argument, of course) to reconcile individual and system.
Returning to language as an agent of paradigm change
(,Einstein at Zurich ‘) we might well ask if language is being
required to do too much by postmodernists, particularly since it
is being classified as ‘not an instrument of communication’. In
the same way that we have come to have texts without authors
we now seem to have language without agents (‘language expends very little energy to create from the new’), to the extent
of depersonalisation: ‘language machines don’t cost much’.
This all depends on what Lyotard means by ‘language machines’ of course (individual or network, it is not quite clear),
but it does have a somewhat sinister ring. Just as it has been
pointed out that no-one was ever wanned by a sign, it can
surely be objected that no revolution was ever created by a
language. We are very much in danger of losing the human
dimension to our philosophy (already too much of a threat in
this subject-area) if we follow this line of reasoning too far, although Lyotard is alive to the problems which can arise when
language is simply treated as ‘productive merchandise’.
Whether a disinfonnation campaign run by subversive
language machines will restore language’s purity is highly
questionable: the degree of reification involved at such points
is extremely alienating, for all Lyotard’s belief that ‘It is a mistake to worry about alienation’ .
On the other hand, perhaps there is a note of irony to be
detected here. Whatever else states may be able to do they cannot legislate (successfully anyway) against the production of
language machines – whether individual or network – and the
state cannot in fact exist without these pennanently potential
antitheses to its will: that is the price of dealing with human
beings. Recent French philosophical discourse is so different
from ours, however, that it is not at all clear whether such passages as the above are to be read by us as sloppy thinking or
authority-challenging irony. The gulf between the respective
traditions, between caution and calculated risk, looms particularly large at such moments.
Perhaps we can turn the piece back on itself and state what
theoretical pretensions it actually does have (whether buried or
undertheorised) as well as its order (anarchic or otherwise) of
argument. To echo, or work around, the theories of others in an
intertextual manner (as we have seen Lyotard doing) is to position oneself theoretically, even if the objective is to unravel the
thoeretical pretensions of those others. Theory cannot be divor-
ced from critique, and it is critique – prescriptive critique too that we have in ‘Svelte Discourse’, as its closing statement
makes clear: ‘We must arrive one day at an international
agreement on a concerted reduction of labor time without any
loss of purchasing power’. The ‘must’ in this assertion signals
pretension in my opinion, and at the very least antitheory lies
behind it. We could, in a bracketing spirit, alter that prefatory
comment to read ‘The following remarks have anti theoretical
pretensions’, and thus bring it into the domain of a very
specific trend in recent intellectual history.9 This would not
reconcile us to Lyotard – that is not the point of the exercise but instead enable us to see him as a fellow-traveller, if perhaps
a highly eccentric one by our standards, who appears to have
similar targets to us. We are on the same road even if we do
have different (perhaps incommensurable) maps.
Then too, the piece delights in paradox (language may not
communicate, but we are nevertheless exhorted to perform certain ‘musts’, whose force derives from shared linguistic
norms), and paradox is a sophisticated philosophical tactic
designed to undermine or dismantle a specific theory: in
Lyotard’s case to underscore the pretentions of commensurability theorists. There is no escape from theory in this antitheoretical imperative either. No writer who could argue that
capitalism is a metaphysical figure can be considered to be
without theoretical pretensions. Language such as this, far from
being a-theoretical, is already saturated with theoretical commitments.
As to order: we start with a problem (capitalism), we investigate its ramifications in contemporary culture, and we then
put forward a concept, sveltness, as a method of countering, at
individual level, the problems posed for us by capitalism’s alliance with the State. Loosely-constructed insights, granted, but
held together by a controlling vision (whether you agree with
that vision or not). It is off-the-top-of-the-head in the sense that
it offers little in the way of proof. Indeed, what we are presented with in ‘Svelte Discourse’ is what looks suspiciously like
stream-of-consciousness philosophy, and that is manifestly not
what most of us in the non-French academic tradition are
trained to process. We are trained, in fact, to recoil from the association-of-ideas mode, and style is a real barrier here, as
Hartmann among others has noted. But the off-the-top-of-theheadness is designed to appeal to a certain contemporary constituency – which it does – and its appeal needs to be acknowledged and reflected upon. It cuts through the overtheoretical qUality and dry-as-dust style of much Anglo-American
professional philosophy, Marxism included. It also represents a
bid for a constituency whose interest is less likely to lie in
philosophy as an internalised discipline, with highly specialised
theoretical pretensions for all practical purposes removed from
the world of politics, than in philosophy as an agent of social
change. And it would have to be admitted that philosophy has a
poor record as an agent of social change in the English-speaking world: otherwise capitalism would not still be a figure. In
other words, it is the sheer crudeness of the piece that appeals;
the way it casually assumes the death of philosophy, and scatters around a few paradoxes to unsettle readers and make them
reflect on their own theoretical commitments. We might conclude, brackets firmly in place, that it does not meet the standards of Anglo-American philosophical discourse therefore it is
The standard philosophical mode in English tends to be
cautious in tone, with its carefully-formulated propositions,
learned footnotes, and painstakingly-compiled references all
conspiring to stifle debate. Lyotard can be seen as one of the
latest in a line of Continental philosophers running back
through Derrida to Nietzsche, who have decided that they must
break free from the philosophy of caution (their general unpopularity in the English-speaking academic world suggests
mission accomplished). The desire to break free – and still be a
philosopher – is a powerful one, but the analytical tradition can
only regard the desire as incompatible with the act of being a
philosopher: that being a business where one should restrict,
not proliferate, one’s statements (and the risks they involve) in
accord with what Jonathan R6e has referred to as ‘that streak of
hesitancy which is such an important (and amiable) part of
traditional philosophical institutions’ .10 If there is one thing
that we cannot accuse ‘Svelte Discourse’ of, however, it is a
‘streak of hesitancy’. It is unashamedly aimed at the emotions,
that area where the philosophy of caution fears, indeed
generally refuses, to tread.
Herein lies ‘Svelte Discourse”s value, in its bypassing of a
tradition that some would consider has long since ossified into
a kind of modem scholasticism (whether of the amiable or stifling kind makes little odds), and whose ossification has infected
even the counter-discourses that have developed within its sphere of infl uence. It is one of the virtues of such a text that its
many paradoxes and silences provoke ideologically-loaded
responses, and the responses so released reveal the shape of the
reacting discourse’s own theoretical pretensions with considerable clarity. At the very least it should make us confront
again the claims of post-philosophy, as well as to question the
point in a post-philosophical (or at best not very philosophically-oriented) world of endlessly, scholastically, refining obsolete structures of argument.
Even its most hostile critic could not deny that postmodernism has had its effect on French and Anglo-American intellectual circles, and that this effect is perceptibly growing and even
becoming dominant in some areas (architectural theory and
literary practice are two areas that come readily to mind).
Postmodernism shares many preoccupations with socialist
philosophy, therefore, and we are surely advised to pay attention to its effects as a result. There is an element of iconoclasm
about postmodernism that can be quite refreshing, even if it
sometimes carries with it more than a hint of intellectual irresponsibility (but that is an oh-so-Anglo reaction …).
Philosophy is hard work, and ‘Svelte Discourse’ gives out no
impression of hard intellectual labour (go dancing at night,
dash off some loosely-constructed insights in the morning?),
therefore it will tend to alienate an audience imbued with the
Protestant work ethic. But perhaps our discourse is the one to
lose out by not including a looser mode of argument with a
risk-taking element It may well be that loose argument is the
way to break out of the philosophical ghetto: and that, postMarx, must surely be the ultimate goal of any socialist
philosopher. In its free-associating, off-the-top-of-the-head,
risk-taking way, postmodernist/poststructuralist discourse
probably has the greater potential to break out of that gh~uo
and do damage to authoritarian structures. I still do not thmk
we have grasped the full significance of this in ~glo
American intellectual life, even though we are very much mtertwined in the other discourse’s concerns. We are probably bidding for the same audience after all. It may be .that we are ~eal
ing in this instance with the phil~sophical eqUivalent o~ b~cks
in-the-Tate-Gallery: it is by a philosopher, agreed, but It IS not
philosophy … Perhaps, as with the art world and anti-art, we
have to take on board the notion of anti-philosophy.
Lyotard-discourse is by our standards over-individualistic
and politically fairly naive. One might also say, however, that it
is the lack of these attributes that renders its opposing discourse
so culturally sterile: that a bit of Brecht-style ‘crude thinking’ is
a necessary leavening for all discourse – even socialist
philosophy. We might justifiably questi.on how e~fective order
and theoretical pretension have been In revolutIonary terms,
and as long as doubts persist as to that effectiveness there
probably ought to be a space set aside for Lyotard-discourse,
and its ilk, in the English-speaking philosophical world.
All references from the Mark S. Roberts translation. The full text
of the original can be found in Tombeau de I’intellectuel et autres
papiers (Editions Minuit, Paris, 1984).
George Steiner,In Bluebeard’s Castle, London, 1971, p. 63.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford,
1967, p. 12.
Ibid., p. 8.
Geoffrey Hartmann. Saving the Text, Baltimore, 1981, p. xxv.
Ibid., p. 51.
Cf. the Kuhn-Popper debate, as outlined in Imre Lakatos and
Alan Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge
See S. Sim, ‘Criticism and Crisis’, review of John Fekete (ed.),
The Structural Allegory (Manchester, 1984), RP 43, pp. 36-38.
Feyerabend, Rorty, and Derrida have all been described as antitheorists. For the more conservative side of anti theory see W. 1.
T. MitchelI (ed.), Against Theory (Chicago and London, 1985).
10 Jonathan Ree, ‘Proletarian Philosophy: A Version of Pastoral?’,
RP 44, pp. 1-7 (p. 6) .
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