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The Works of Lyotard - Part 1

Lecturer: Graham Jones

Originally Taught: Summer School 2023

The last decade has seen a renewal of interest in the philosophy of Jean-Francois Lyotard, an encounter that has foregrounded and re-evaluated various significant works previously eclipsed by his (often misunderstood) notion of the ‘postmodern’.

This course, intended ideally as the first of three parts, will provide a guide to Lyotard’s philosophy. Structured as a chronological survey of his oeuvre, it will closely examine the major works both individually and in respect to the broader sweep of his on-going concerns. After a brief look at the themes presented in the two short, early works Phenomenology and Why Philosophize?, this first part will focus on and ‘unpack’ the two major texts, Discourse, figure and Libidinal Economy. It will also examine a selection of essays written between 1968 and 1977 that mark points of development, revision, and transition in respect to the ideas and arguments presented in these longer works and which pave the way for Lyotard’s subsequent endeavours. Finally, it will look at some of the interpretations, adaptations and criticisms made of Discourse, figure and Libidinal Economy.

Seminar 1: Introduction and Context

The first half of this seminar will provide some background for Lyotard’s concerns, touching on his education, activism and teaching in the context of contemporaneous philosophical and political issues in Europe. With this context in mind, the second half will introduce the key themes and debates subsequently explored in Lyotard’s ‘libidinal’ works.

Seminar 2: Discourse, Figure

The second seminar will provide an introduction to the ideas developed in Discourse, figure, with a particular focus on Lyotard’s aims and method. We will also delve into his theories about desire and unconscious processes, and their relation to the plasticity that he sees as intrinsic to artistic practice.

Seminar 3: Related Essays

Throughout the latter half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s Lyotard wrote a number of essays that developed and, in an ongoing manner, revised his ideas about art in respect to the works of Marx and Freud. This seminar will provide a general survey of these ideas and then focus on several specific essays that mark key points of transition and transformation in Lyotard’s philosophical development.

Seminar 4: Libidinal Economy

This seminar will examine Lyotard’s most controversial book, examining not just its claims about libidinal energy and the latter’s various forms of investment in psychic, social and political activity but also the text’s own highly ‘performative’ rhetorical style (and how this is intended to both reflect and enact the work’s subject-matter).

Seminar 5: Overview, criticisms and questions

This final seminar will wrap-up our analysis of Libidinal Economy before examining its initial reception by other philosophers and political activists, Lyotard’s own subsequent criticisms of his libidinal work, as well as the book’s subsequent ‘influence’. There will also be time at the end for addressing related questions and discussion of Lyotard’s philosophy more generally.