The Post-Modern Sublime

Jean-Francois Lyotard

Who Is He? 

Jeann-Francois Lyotard was a post-structuralist philosopher born in Vincennes, France, 1924. Lyotard is know for his philosphical accounts on aesthetics and politics, he is best known for his influential essay, The Post-Modern Condition. 

The Post-Modern Condition

Commisioned by the govenment of Quebec in 1979, The Post-Modern Condition is a study on knowledge in a technological society. Lyotard’s politically charged account focuses critiques a society ruled by computerization effects the status of knowlegde and power in the post-modern world. In this account on post-modernity, Lyotard focuses on the fragmentation of language and draws an important line between two kinds of knowledge, which he categorizes as narrative knowledge and scientific knowledge. Lyotard defines these kinds of knowledge hierarchically, stating that scientific knowledge is a dominating feature in post-modernism. In The Post-Modern Condition, Lyotard creates a defence for narrative knowledge, for he believes that scientific knowledge does not hold more importance than that of narrative. Though scientific knowledge is justified in the post-modern world by it’s economic value, Lyotard claims that it has lost its ‘truth value’.  

Sublimity in Post-Modernity

Lyotard questions the limitations of reason in regard to the problems of representation that stem from the meaning of certain phrases.  In the postmodern philosophy events are analyzed as phrases, and again Lyotard asserts that events exceed representation in that no representational system can account for all phrases. With this question in view, he discusses the term ‘referent’ which often links the meaning of a phrase to an event; for Lyotard, the referent can not be fixed to an event that actually occurred in reality. He then describes what he defines as a ‘differend’….How do we know when a differend has occurred? Lyotard says that it is signalled by the difficulty of linking on from one phrase to another. A differend occurs when a discourse does not allow the linkages which would enable the presentation of a wrong. Lyotard insists that phrases must, of necessity, follow other phrases – even silence is a kind of phrase, with its own generic effects. A silent phrase in the context of a dispute may be covering four possible states of affairs, corresponding to each of the instances in the phrase universe:

  1. The sense: The meaning of the referent cannot be signified.
  2. The referent: The referent (the wrong, etc.) did not take place.
  3. The addressor: The addressor does not believe that the referent falls within the competence of him/her self to present.
  4. The addressee: The addressor does not believe that the referent (the wrong, etc.) falls within the competence (to hear, to understand, to judge, etc.) of the addressee.

The Kantian connection between pleasure and pain when attempting to comprehend unrepresentable reality is directly linked to Lyotard’s definement of the differend – thus, evoking sublimity. The sublime is situated at the differend between language games and phrase regimes; we feel a mixture of pleasure and pain in the frustration of not knowing how to follow on from a phrase but feeling that there is something important that must be put into words. In Lyotard’s postmodern philosophy the sublime is the feeling that indicates the limits of reason and representation. 


Lyotard claims that art is the realm which is best able to provide testimony to differends through its sublime effects. The concept of post-modern art for Lyotard, focuses on avant-garde movements, such as Abstract Expressionism – and the work of Barnett Newman in particular.