Uncertain Writing

It is April 2015. I am sitting in one of the most ancient parts of Sorbonne University listening to academics who knew the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who were his friends, colleagues and family. I listen to their disagreements about the different ways in which his work can be divided into periods: are there five or three? This lack of consensus is awkward and exciting.

For some, the years of political engagement constitute a first period; for others, they are the bedrock of his philosophical writings which never turn away from politics. However, each narrative acknowledges the role of his active political militancy, which often remains under-acknowledged in the English-speaking world. Yet this discussion takes place in the Sorbonne, still a bastion of the establishment against which students famously fought in 1968.

'Sois jeune et tais-toi' (Be young and shut-up), Atelier Populaire, Paris, May 1968.

I have been working on or from Lyotard’s ideas and writings for more than a decade; yet when I agreed to write a book on Lyotard for Reaktion's Critical Lives series, it was despite my better judgment. I hesitated and was filled with doubt. Uncertain because it was potentially a project which would be antithetical to his own ideas and approach. Lyotard is a thinker who rejected the idea of a fixed subject position – each time writing differently; each time starting again with a different approach, with different terminology; he laughed at the idea of the biographical and pulled apart such notions in his own fabulous biography of André Malraux.

Lyotard is a thinker for whom there exists no written biography and yet here I was accepting a request to write a book which, despite the number of emails I wrote to his colleagues, friends, family insisting that this was a short book on his life and work, not a biography, is published in a series whose bar codes declare the category: Biography.

Not a biography

So that was my hesitation, the feeling of doubt which dogged my engagement with the project and which fills its writing. Uncertainty is often also apparent in Lyotard’s own work: an affect which provoked consternation in visitors to Les Immatériaux, the hugely ambitious exhibition he co-curated at the Pompidou Centre in 1985. Here, visitors were performers: wandering within a darkened, theatrically-lit labyrinth of visual, aural, sensorial experiences. The aim, Lyotard wrote, was to inspire in the visitor ‘a feeling of Incertitude: incertitude about the finality of these [technological] developments and incertitude about the identity of the human individual in his condition of such improbable immateriality’.

Poster for Les Immatériaux, 1985,  ©​ Luc Maillet / Grafibus.

Uncertainty in response to the new world of immaterials, not only the new technologies of synthetic materials, new acoustic, sensory experiences and networks of communication but also our changing relationship to our bodies as fuelling the ambivalence he was later to term ‘the Inhuman’. It is the same feeling of incertitude I felt when listening to the discussions at the Sorbonne, an active disagreement I want to see continued: I want the book to open up Lyotard to further uncertainty and productive disagreements.

– Kiff Bamford

Kiff Bamford is an artist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Art, Architecture and Design at Leeds Beckett University. He is the author of Jean-François Lyotard which is available to order from our online shop.