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The Inhuman Condition: Nihilism / Information / Art

Lecturer: Ashley Woodward

Originally Taught: Summer School 2012

This course explores the related themes of nihilism, information, and art in the thought of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard explored the contemporary conditions of culture and in particular the impact of information technology on the political, cultural, and existential dimensions of human life. He was also an aesthetician and art writer, and aesthetics plays a central role in his analysis of life in an information culture. In addition to his extensive writings, Lyotard co-currated one of the first major exhibitions of new media art (Les Immatériaux at the Centre Georges Pompidou, 1985). Lyotard’s uniqueness and importance with respect to the cultural analysis of information is that he can be seen as treading a “middle road” between a critical reaction to the dehumanising effects of new technologies on the one hand, and a naïve, unreflective celebration of such technologies on the other. The subject will explore Lyotard’s investigations of these issues through various of his rich texts, interpreting them and contextualising them within the wider discourses of information theory and new media art, as well as examining them through various other contemporary theorists who have engaged with Lyotard, such as Bernard Stiegler and Jacques Rancière. The aim of the course is to uncover what Lyotard has to offer to philosophy, social theory, aesthetics and the arts today.

Course Schedule:
Seminar 1 : the Idea of the Inhuman
Introduction to Lyotard. After the postmodern condition: the inhuman condition. The problem of nihilism. Nihilism in the information age.

Seminar 2 : Information theory
Introduction to information theory (Shannon, Weiner, etc.). Lyotard’s philosophy of language in The Differend. Language and information. Lyotard’s critique of information.

Seminar 3 : New media arts
Introduction to Kantian aesthetics. Lyotard’s critique of new media arts. The exhibition Les Immatériaux.

Seminar 4 : Solar catastrophe
The fable of the exploding sun as a ‘post-metanarrative.’ Transhumanism. Leibniz’s monad. Artificial intelligence. Time. On technics: Lyotard and Steigler.

Seminar 5 : Art contra nihilism
The value of entropy. Lyotard’s recourse to psychoanalysis. Art as unpresentable: Lyotard and Rancière. The ‘art-phrase.’ Lyotard on specific arts: painting, music, cinema, etc. Conclusions.

J.-F. Lyotard, “A Postmodern Fable” in Postmodern Fables, trans. G. Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
______, “Time Today” in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
______, “Les Immatériaux,” Art & Text 17 ( 1985): 47-57.
______, “Rules and Paradoxes and Svelte Appendix,” Cultural Critique 5 (1986-1987): 209-219.
______, “Oikos” in Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
______, “Freud, Energy, and Chance: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard,” Tekhnema 5 (1999).
_____, “Sublime Aesthetic of the Contract Killer” in The Assassination of Experience by Painting: Monory, ed. S. Wilson (London: Black Dog, 1988).

A. Woodward, “Nihilism and the Sublime in Lyotard,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities vol. 16, no. 2 (2011): 51-71.
______, “New Technologies and Lyotard’s Aesthetics,” Litteraria Pragensia  vol. 16, no. 32 (2006): 14-35.
______, “Immaterial Matter” in Sensorium: Aesthetics, Art, Life, ed. Barbara Bolt, Felicity Colman, Graham Jones, Ashley Woodward (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007).