Re-Reading “The Postmodern Condition”: Backwards into the problematic

There is something strange about Lyotard’s use of the term ‘performativity’ in The Postmodern Condition. One way of trying to state this summarily is to say that he seems to conflate the notion of ‘performativity’ (in an open system) with that of ‘productivity’ (in a closed, or rather controlling or constraining, system, not so much a system that does not interact with its environment as one that seeks to control or dominate its internal and external environments, a system that is ‘blind’ to its environments)…

He begins by discussing the performative in terms of different modes of action in and through language in the context of social interaction. Some of these modes of action are capable of acting upon the processes of contextualization and thereby altering context (open system). However, he quickly shifts register, to discuss performativity as efficient production in an input-output system (‘blind’ system).

All actions within this (‘blind’) system, he seems to suggest, are operatively and productively oriented to optimization of the system itself, which is self-regulating (and, as ‘blind’, incapable of changing or evolving). The system forms a singular (‘blind’) context, which is an unalterable totality. This unalterability, he claims, is a result of adopting a systems theory or cybernetic perspective on society. That perspective, as (constative) language game, has come to dominate all other (performative) language games, as forms of life.

His discussion of performativity, as efficient, operative productivity (‘blind’ system), does not seem to follow from his characterization of language use (open system). Open systems do not permit such control of context as Lyotard suggests has occurred and continues to occur. Such closures as occur require adherence, either through active assent or enforced consent. Without such adherence, contextualisation, as a dynamic relation among knowledge, action and situation, does not lead simply to ‘control’ in the way suggested, if by ‘control’ is meant suppression of all alternative outcomes than the efficiently produced ‘output’, that which is ‘seen’ amidst the general ‘blindness’ of the system to its own diversity and prolificness.

In short, the operation of an attempted closure of an open system, as in the operation of a ‘blind’ system, requires active suppression of the multifarious forms of performative action and interaction that occur in the process of seeking and defining a singular, efficient, operative, productive output, a process that might be described as ‘wasteful’, and whose main ‘products’ are material and environmental ‘waste’ and human and social exclusion and marginalisation.

By characterizing performativity in this way, in terms of the automaticity of input-output in a ‘blind’ system, thereby making it a synonym of productivity, he loses a potentially valuable tool by means of which to try to understand the complex and reflexive dynamics of contextualization and therefore how computerization, as a language game with constative and performative dimensions, might affect society and, his object of study, knowledge in an open system.

Is his characterization of performativity in this way a symptom? Is he demonstrating, performatively, through his text what he is arguing, constatively, is the actual state of affairs of society?

Is his text a set of statements (constative utterances) or a set of acts (performative utterances)? Or both, intermingled?

Read more…


2 thoughts on “Re-Reading “The Postmodern Condition”: Backwards into the problematic

  1. Dear Alan
    Lyotard does seem to move between these different senses of performativity, as you indicate, i.e. the sense that is related to performative speech acts – related to ‘linguistic philosophy’ and the performative as modulated through the critique of instrumental reason, i.e. the fetishisation of efficiency and effectiveness. He seems to do this in plain view of the reader so I don’t find this a problem. I’m perhaps drawn more to the latter use, but your post has usefully reminded me how much he does draw on linguistic philosophy.

    1. Hi Steven,

      Thank you for your comment.

      If we agree that the move has been made and, to adopt the language of the text itself, that this move is part of a general agonistics (contest or game, or even dialogic discourse) the question that then arises, given the text’s problematique, is whether it is a legitimate move. Its visibility (“plain view”) is not an issue; its legitimacy is.

      ‘Performativity’, or rather ‘the performative’ as a mode of action, is taken from the language game of philosophy of language. That game does not immediately suggest that it is a legitimate move to conflate the ‘performative’ with the ‘productive’, a term which is taken from the language game of…?

      What language game is ‘productivity’ being borrowed from? Where is its source cited in the text? What (which text) or who (which author) authorises this conflation?

      In short, Lyotard’s critique seems ill-founded, or, rather, to be founded elsewhere. It is not developed on the basis of the philosophy of language; at least, not as it is explained in his text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s