Simon Malpas' text on Jean-Francios Lyotard is part of a recent series put out by the Routledge Press, designed under the general editorial direction of Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway, University of London), to explore the most recent and exciting ideas in intellectual development during the past century or so. To this end, figures such as Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricouer, Friedrich Nietzsche and other influential thinkers in critical thought are highlighted in the series, planned to include more than 21 volumes in all.
Malpas' text, following the pattern of the others, includes background information on Lyotard and his significance, the key ideas and sources, and Lyotard's continuing impact on other thinkers. As the series preface indicates, no critical thinker arises in a vacuum, so the context, influences and broader cultural environment are all important as a part of the study, something with which Nietzsche (one of the thinkers highlighted in this series) might have some argument.
Why is Lyotard included in this series? Lyotard is less well known in comparison with some of the thinkers in this series, but his impact in modern critical thinking has gone far beyond narrow intellectual confines to influence in many fields impacted with the thinking of postmodernism; these include psychology, politics, literature, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, history and anthropology. Malpas indicates that Lyotard's primary focus is on issues of politics, justice and freedom; these themes come out regardless of Lyotard discussing a work of art, a philosophical or theological idea, or even grand cosmological issues.
It is natural that Lyotard should be included in this series, given that he is a key thinker in modern critical thought. Lyotard studied at the Sorbonne, and ended up early in his career at a university position in East Alergia. He became involved in their struggle for independence against the French, and had an enchantment with Marxist thought that dissipated by the late 1960s. It was during the 1970s that key books on Modernism and Postmodernism appeared from Lyotard, and continued into 1990s. Lyotard's influence, however, never became a system. According to Malpas, 'for Lyotard, criticism must remain responsive to what is unique in any work, and continually strive to reinvent itself in the light of new events.' This requires an openness that a systematic structure would prohibit.
Key ideas that Malpas highlights starts with Postmodernity. This comes from a report that was done in the 1970s to assess 'the way in which the nature and status of knowledge have changed in contemporary society. ' Grand narratives and ways of categorising knowledge of the past have lost their efficacy, and the drive for profit and efficiency has taken their place. Lyotard develops the idea of language and metanarrative for reorganisation and assessment of validity. Lyotard's sense of aestethics comes from a sense that art has the power to disrupt 'people's common sense understandings of the way the world works.' His linguistic work has a direct impact on the political and historical understandings, in the breakdown of universals in both arenas. Lyotard's thought with regard to the 'inhuman' does not refer to cruelty or barbarity (he addresses that in the discussions dealing with politics and history), but rather in a childlike state of unconditioned desires and impulses that get shaped by other forces, some of which are also inhuman.
One of the useful features of the text is the side-bar boxes inserted at various points. For example, during the discussion on Lyotard's development of art, the sublime and the postmodern, there are brief discussions, set apart from the primary strand of the text, on the issues of aesthetics, avant-garde, and sublime, developing further these ideas should the reader not be familiar with them, or at least not in the way with which Lyotard would be working with ideas derived from it. There are also brief boxes on Kant and Freud, among others, giving insight into key ideas from these thinkers as they relate to Lyotard. Each section on a key idea spans approximately twenty pages, with a brief summary concluding each, which gives a recap of the ideas (and provides a handy reference).
The concluding chapter, After Lyotard, highlights some key areas of development in relation to other thinkers, as well as points of possible exploration for the reader. Malpas traces the influence of recent scholars and their diverse interests: David Harvey, Keith Jenkins, and Linda Hutcheon work in the area of postmodernism; Stuart Sim, Gary Banham and others draw on the issue of the inhuman; David Carroll, Terry Eagleton, and Isobel Armstrong have developed his ideas of aesthetics. He is often categorised along with Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard as a founding thinker of postmodern theory.
As do the other volumes in this series, Malpas concludes with an annotated bibliography of works by Lyotard (primarily those available in authoritative English translation), and works on Lyotard by principal scholars. He also includes a works cited and useful index.
While this series focuses intentionally upon critical literary theory and cultural studies, in fact this is only the starting point. As intellectual endeavours of every sort depend upon language, understanding, and interpretation, the thorough comprehension of how and why we know what we know is crucial.