Literary and Critical Theory Jean-François Lyotard
Keith Crome
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0041


Jean-François Lyotard (b. 1924–d. 1998) is one of the most important critical thinkers of the last half-century. His work is closely associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism, and it has been influential across a wide range of disciplines and fields, including literary studies and critical theory, philosophy, aesthetics, and politics. The book that brought him to prominence in the Anglophone world, and which is undoubtedly his most culturally influential work, is The Postmodern Condition (published in French in 1979 and in English in 1984). However, it is one of Lyotard’s less important works, lacking the philosophical depth and provocation of his other publications, which are unevenly spread over a period of forty years. Lyotard published his first book, Phenomenology, in 1954, and his second, Discourse, Figure, seventeen years later, in 1971, and from then on published prolifically. He experimented with manifold modes of writing, and his many works are stylistically and thematically disparate—Lyotard did not so much develop questions and problems left unresolved in his earlier work as break with his previous theoretical commitments (sometimes returning to them later, albeit with a markedly different emphasis or approach). This variety is no mere whimsy; it is called for by Lyotard’s sustained concern to bear witness to that which resists the techno-scientific programming of life—the unpredictable, the aleatory, and the singular (which he found figured in literature and art). Nevertheless, the manifest and provocative heterogeneity of Lyotard’s corpus has challenged scholars, making it resistant to any straightforward, systematic ordering. In response, Lyotard’s commentators and editors have often adopted one of two approaches. They have either ordered his writings around three of his major works (or “real books” as he called them): Discourse, Figure (Discours, figure, 1971), Libidinal Economy (Économie libidinale, 1974) and The Differend (Le Différend, 1983), viewing the lesser publications (shorter works and essays) as preparatory sketches and studies; or, despite overlaps, they have grouped them by their thematic concerns. In order to guide the reader in navigating both Lyotard’s works and the secondary literature on them, this article follows both these ways of classifying Lyotard’s writings. It first identifies Lyotard’s principal works and some key collections of his essays. It then groups his other works by theme, followed by a select list of interviews with Lyotard. It ends with an annotated bibliography of advanced studies on Lyotard.

General Overviews

Partly because of the prominence of The Postmodern Condition (Lyotard 2004, cited under the Postmodern), and partly because of the formidable variety, complexity, and stylistic challenges of Lyotard’s other works, the greatest number of introductions to Lyotard are contained in introductions to postmodernism. Two such introductions are listed here: Butler 2002 is a concise, straightforward overview of postmodernism, while Connor 1997 is an influential introduction to theories of postmodernism, which sets up a useful comparison between Lyotard’s account of the postmodern and two other equally important theories: Fredric Jameson’s Marxist theory of postmodernism and Jean Baudrillard’s account of the contemporary culture of simulation. The other works listed in this section are the most important and helpful general overviews of Lyotard’s work. Malpas 2003, Sim 1996, and Woodward 2002 provide clear and accessible introductions to Lyotard’s thought, and are good places to begin. Jones 2014 is equally as clear and accessible, but in demonstrating the applicability of Lyotard’s ideas to the arts, it will also interest the more advanced reader. Williams 1998 is a more advanced introduction, presenting Lyotard as a political thinker and offering a comprehensive survey and evaluation of his works from this standpoint. Bennington 1988 and Readings 1991 are more challenging overviews. They both provide detailed accounts of Lyotard’s principal works and key arguments, while using stylistic and rhetorical devices to resist the simplification inherent to introductory guides, and also to capture something of the complexity of Lyotard’s writings. Sim 2011 provides an extended glossary of key terms and concepts in Lyotard’s work.

  • Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1988.

    A seminal work: the first general introduction to Lyotard to be published, it is still influential. Organized around Lyotard’s three major works (Discourse, Figure; Libidinal Economy; The Differend), it is thoughtful and challenging, clearly written, and rigorous. Bennington has himself called into question the hermeneutic privilege he accorded to the linguistic pragmatics of The Differend, presenting Lyotard’s earlier work in its light; nevertheless, it remains a standard reference.

  • Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A good place to start for an overview of postmodernism. It covers a lot of ground, surveying in a brief compass the social transformations, cultural forms, and theoretical ideas associated with postmodernism. Inevitably, there are simplifications and distortions, but if the reader does not give credence to its dubious proclamations about the value of contemporary French philosophy, it is a good orientation to the major issues and concerns of postmodernism.

  • Connor, Steven. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. 2d ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997.

    First published in 1988, this frequently reprinted study is an influential guidebook to the principle forms of postmodernism in culture and art. It provides short summaries of the theories of the “postmodern” advanced by Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard as well as Lyotard. The presentation of Lyotard’s work is uneven—sometimes careful and insightful, at other times it is hasty and mistaken, particularly when it aspires to criticism.

  • Jones, Graham. Lyotard Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts. London: I. B. Tauris, 2014.

    An excellent introduction to Lyotard’s key philosophical concepts and a reliable and insightful guide to his thinking about painting and the arts. It explains and interrogates the main concepts associated with Lyotard’s philosophy from the early 1970s until the end of his career: the figural, the libidinal, the sublime, and the postmodern. Useful to both new and advanced readers alike.

  • Malpas, Simon. Jean-François Lyotard. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

    A straightforward introduction to Lyotard’s work aimed at students and those with little prior knowledge of philosophy or cultural theory. It is easy to read and follow. Primarily a guide for literary studies, it concentrates on Lyotard’s work on the postmodern, and on the associated ideas of the sublime, the differend, and the inhuman.

  • Readings, Bill. Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

    Covers much of the same range of material as Bennington 1988, but does so with a view to the impact of Lyotard’s work on literary studies, focusing on Lyotard’s various deconstructions of the presuppositions of representation in art, culture, and history.

  • Sim, Stuart. Jean-François Lyotard. London: Prentice Hall, 1996.

    A straightforward introduction to Lyotard’s work, broader in scope that Malpas 2003, covering the development of Lyotard’s thought from his early Marxist writings on Algeria and the struggle for Algerian independence to his writings on the postmodern.

  • Sim, Stuart, ed. The Lyotard Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

    This dictionary provides extensive definitions of key concepts and ideas in Lyotard’s work, written by experts from a number of different disciplines. It includes a short introductory overview of Lyotard’s career and legacy, and a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

  • Williams, James. Lyotard: Towards a Postmodern Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1998.

    A clearly written introduction that presents Lyotard as a political philosopher. It surveys the major works and periods of Lyotard’s thought, and uses its focus on the political implications of Lyotard’s writings to draw out the differences between Lyotard’s earlier libidinal philosophy and his later postmodern philosophy.

  • Woodward, Ashley. “Jean-François Lyotard.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2002.

    A good resource for undergraduate students wanting an overview of Lyotard’s work. Begins with a chronological survey of the main periods of Lyotard’s thought, before looking at some of his key concerns.

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