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The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Critical Essay

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Updated: Jul 5th, 2019

François Lyotard is one of the most influential postmodern theorists who explored the concept of knowledge in the twentieth century. Lyotard (1979) analysed different types of information and knowledge and the role knowledge played in the society. His discoveries revealed the major trends which existed at that time.

Thus, the theorist exploits the concepts of metanarratives to stress that the era of information has little to do with ethics. He also emphasises that the major resource of the twenty-first century is information which will be the object of conflict. The author’s famous work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge has inspired numerous theorists and, to certain extent, has shaped some major theories of society.

Lyotard’s ideas had impact on conflict, functionalist, critical and feminist theories. In the first place, it is essential to consider major ideas articulated in Lyotard’s book. Thus, the subject matter of the book is “the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies” (Lyotard 1979, p. xxiii). The theorist stresses that the very nature of knowledge (as well as information) has been changed due to the changes which are taking place in the society.

Technology and science have transformed information. According to Lyotard (1979), information is no longer a final product, but only a sub-product. Managing (i.e. searching, distributing, storing) information is becoming pivotal within the contemporary society. It is not enough to generate some information, it is crucial to be able to manage it properly.

It is essential to understand which channels should be used to distribute data available. Lyotard (1979, p. 5) also notes that information has become a “productive power”, which is the central “stake in the worldwide competition for power”. The theorist states that information will be the most important resource and countries will long to possess knowledge rather than other resources.

Remarkably, knowledge helps provide or manage other vital resources more efficiently. Therefore, highly developed countries will try to control knowledge to retain their leading positions with the help of proper information management. Apart from defining knowledge, Lyotard (1979) puts a very important question. He tries to understand who has the right to decide what knowledge is.

At this point, it is necessary to note that the author claims that there are different kinds of knowledge. The author introduces the concept of narratives. In other words, different people obtain and accumulate knowledge. Lyotard (1979) tries to consider legitimacy of knowledge. The author concludes that this can be the government’s priority to legitimate knowledge.

Importantly, Lyotard (1979) does not simply identify those responsible to legitimate knowledge, but he also provides a specific method to do it effectively. Thus, language games can be the necessary tools to legitimate knowledge. Importantly, language is perceived as a part of the system. However, the system is not characterised by rigid rules as it is not a modern by postmodern society.

The language game is not regulated by a variety of rules in the postmodern society as each move leads to new forms and various innovations. In this respect, Lyotard (1979) provides two types of knowledge, i.e. narrative and scientific knowledge. As far as narrative knowledge is concerned, it encompasses numerous concepts including truth or beauty.

Narrative is characterised by flexibility. Thus, narrative knowledge can be legitimated by the narrator. More so, the narrator does not need to have some authority. Any narrator is legitimate as he/she has and furthers some knowledge. Nonetheless, scientific knowledge is characterised by certain precision and availability of evidence supporting or refuting certain statements (Lyotard 1979).

Both types of knowledge are equal and have their right to exist. Remarkably, Lyotard (1979) dwells upon social bonds and notes that narrative knowledge is formed within social bonds. People’s interaction creates numerous narratives. At the same time, social bonds are irrelevant for scientific knowledge as this type of knowledge is not “a shared component” (Lyotard 1979, p. 25).

The existence of the two types of knowledge leads to a valuable conclusion. Lyotard (1979) states that knowledge can be legitimate as soon as it is a part of a debate. Moreover, people decide what is legitimate during their discussion. When it comes to scientific knowledge, it becomes legitimate when certain evidence is provided.

Noteworthy, Lyotard (1979) points out that the two type of knowledge lead to two different types of legitimacy. On the one hand, the human is seen as a hero who legitimates knowledge. On the other hand, scientific type of knowledge is associated with moral and ethical component.

The theorist notes that these two types of knowledge created the so-called grand narrative in the modern society. One of the examples of the grand narrative is Marxism. Lyotard (1979) claims that the Marxist theory is based on global principles of morality and ethics.

However, the grand narrative does not exist in the postmodernist world due to the changes in the nature of knowledge. At present, people fail to create some grand narratives due to “the blossoming of techniques and technologies… which has shifted emphasis from the ends of action to its means” (Lyotard 1979, p. 37). The absence of a metalanguage is also seen as a cause of decline of grand narratives.

People form quite specific narratives applicable in particular terrains. Therefore, people are more concerned with performing certain tasks rather than focusing on ethics and morality. The theorist argues that this focus on performativity has a specific impact on the development of the society (Lyotard 1979). At present, conducting research is associated with the use of advanced technology which is costly.

Thus, wealthy groups of people can afford obtaining more information. According to Lyotard (1979), this financial component along with the focus on performativity enables the developed society focus on the maintenance of the system. It is also necessary to add that the theorist mentions the shift within educational system. Thus, education of the twentieth century is transformed as knowledge is not central to it.

Lyotard (1979) points out that the role of professors becomes less important as students will be able to obtain knowledge with the help of technology in the computerised world. It is becomes more important to make students able to search for information using technology. Again, methods of obtaining knowledge are seen as more vital than knowledge itself.

Finally, there is another important finding revealed in the book. Even though those who have the necessary resources strive for information control, they will never be able to get it as the system is unstable. Lyotard (1979) admits that there have been numerous examples when certain groups or individuals tried to control knowledge. Those attempts resulted in creation of totalitarian countries.

Importantly, Lyotard (1979) stresses that totalitarian regimes are doomed to fail due to the unstable nature of the system. The theorist agrees that the major role of scientists is not to give answers but to have ideas (Lyotard 1979). Admittedly, abundance of ideas is unlikely to lead to stability.

Therefore, the theorist comes to some valuable conclusions. Lyotard (1979) claims that the computerised world has already shaped the world and the very concept of knowledge, and hence, there is no point in trying to diminish the influence of technology on the development of the society. The theorist also points out that there are two possible ways for the society to develop.

First, if some groups or individuals obtain the control over information and its distribution, totalitarian societies will be created (and will soon fail). However, there is another way to follow. Lyotard (1979, p. 67) believes that it is essential to “give the public free access to the memory and data banks” and this will result in creation of language games of “perfect information”.

People will be able to gain and accumulate more information which will also lead to the development of the human society where people’s desire to have a just society can be satisfied. Interestingly, the contemporary society seems to choose the second path as people in many countries have almost unlimited access to information with the help of the Internet.

Besides, the development of online technologies is shaping educational systems of many developed societies. Hence, students obtain higher education via the Internet and the role of professors is changing. Therefore, the societies are choosing the world of plurality and development.

Thus, the points mentioned above are central to the book in question. Lyotard (1979) explores one of the most burning issues of the twentieth century, the structure and role of knowledge and information. It is important to note that the author appeals to several major theories of society in his work. In other words, he starts a kind of debate as he questions consistency of certain theories.

It is also possible to trace certain the author’s adherence to the conflict theory. The major concepts of this theory are used to consider the types of knowledge and the role of knowledge in the society. Lyotard (1979) states that the two types of knowledge, i.e. narrative and scientific knowledge, are in certain conflict with each other. Admittedly, the author notes that each of the narratives cannot be regarded as right or wrong, but the two types of knowledge are often opposed as they need different types of evidence (Lyotard 1979).

Apart from the types of narratives, the author employs the conflict theory when considering the role of knowledge in the society of the twentieth century. Lyotard (1979) stresses that knowledge and information will become the major productive sources. The countries will try to gain more power through obtaining more knowledge, which will be central to the major conflict within the human society.

There is certain reference to feminist theory as the author notes that the society should be and will be characterised by plurality where minority groups will have to struggle for information and knowledge (Lyotard 1979). More so, the book includes certain methods which can be used by minority groups to become more empowered. Thus, gaining and properly managing knowledge will help minority groups to become more empowered (Lyotard 1979).

Language games are also regarded as tools to gain empowerment. Another theory exploited by the author is critical theory. Clearly, Lyotard (1979) does not simply depict the society as it is. The author tries to unveil major trends and concepts which are shaping the development of the society. The author is trying to help people understand the wrongs of the society and choose the right path.

Nonetheless, Lyotard (1979) does not only employ certain theories, he provides certain critique to some theories. Thus, Lyotard (1979) reveals inconsistency of the functionalist theory. The author agrees that societies are structures, but Lyotard (1979) also stresses that the system does not long for perfection. On the contrary, the systems are unstable and can hardly be controlled.

Therefore, there can be no striving for specific ways of development. Admittedly, the author resorts to major theories of society to explain his standpoint and provide a new postmodernist vision. As has been mentioned above, Lyotard is one of the most influential theorists of the postmodernist ear. More so, he defined the new era and revealed major concepts.

Clearly, his ideas have had a profound effect on the development of the major theories of societies. One of such theories is feminist. Lyotard (1979) unveils major principles governing the contemporary society. He also revealed plurality of the developed society. Feminist theory has obtained a significant grounding. Feminist theorists refer to Lyotard’s works to reveal the plurality and inequality within the developed societies.

It is possible to state that this theory supports Lyotard’s ideas and concepts. At present, feminist theory is based on the assumption that there is inequality which is maintained by the existing system. This is what Lyotard mentions in his famous book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. At that, supporters of feminist theory now exploit the notion of the knowledge in the contemporary society.

Knowledge is now seen as one of the ways to redistribute power and make women more empowered. The conflict theory has also been shaped to some extent. One of the major effects Lyotard (1979) has had on this theory can be traced in the terrain of the matter of the conflict. Thus, conflict theorists of the nineteenth century or early twentieth century claimed that societies struggled for resources.

However, the contemporary (or postmodern) conflict theorists claim that information is one of the major resources in the twenty-first century. They stress that knowledge is one of the most valuable resources in the era of information. It is also important to note that Lyotard’s ideas prove that the conflict theory is still influential. Thus, theorists still focus on the concept of the conflict which is one of the forces shaping the development of the society.

On the contrary, Lyotard (1979) proves that functionalist theory is declining. According to this theory the society is a system which strives for perfection, i.e. proper development of all its constituent parts. Nonetheless, major concepts of postmodernism refute this assumption. Lyotard (1979) proves that there can be no stability in the system.

Therefore, there can be no way to make each part of the system develop proportionally. Abundance of data and chaotic nature of knowledge makes it impossible for the system to develop in a stable way. Plurality is associated with conflict of ideas and interests, which, in its turn, leads to disproportionate distribution of resources, i.e. disproportionate development of the society.

In conclusion, it is possible to note that Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge is one of the most influential works of postmodern era. The theorist outlined major trends which were apparent in the society of the twentieth century. He identified the structure and the role of knowledge in the society of the information era. According to Lyotard (1979), information is one of the major resources and the societies of the information era strive for control over this resource.

The theorist also unveils plurality of the contemporary society. Importantly Lyotard (1979) also stresses that abundance of information can have to implications. It can lead societies to totalitarian rule (which is always short-lived though) or it can lead to inexhaustible development. However, the author stresses that this development is possible if the information is available to everyone.

Importantly, the concepts provided by the author have had profound impact on the development of other theories of society. Lyotard (1979) justifies consistency of the conflict theory as he stresses that the conflict is an indispensible part of the development of the society. Feminist theory is also empowered as Lyotard (1979) reveals plurality of the world and the inequality within the contemporary societies.

Finally, the theorist undermines the functionalist theory. Lyotard (1979) proves that the theory is inconsistent as there is no stability in the society. It is also important to note that Lyotard’s ideas have already been justified by time. Thus, the society follows the pattern outlined by the theorist. Masses have almost unlimited access to information through the Internet. This helps the societies to cooperate and develop, i.e. find new ways to address existing issues.

Reference List

Lyotard, JF 1979, The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge, Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.

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