Postmoderns and After?

Postmoderns and After?

—40 years after The Postmodern Condition


Date: November 9th and 10th, 2019

Venue: Nanyuan Conference Room, China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China


Speakers: Ashley WOODWARD (University of Dundee/UK), Sarah WILSON (Courtauld Institute of Art/UK), Bernard STIEGLER (Institute of Research and Innovation Paris & CAA/FR), Philippe PARRENO (Artist/FR), LI Yang (Peking University/CN), Yuk HUI (Bauhaus University Weimar & CAA/ HK), Hiroki AZUMA (Genron /JP)


Academic Support: Prof.Gao Shiming, Prof. Yu Xuhong and Prof. Guan Huaibin


Convener: Yuk Hui




China Academy of Art

China Academy of Art;

Institute for Collaborative Innovation in Chinese Visual Studies, CAA

School of Inter-media, CAA



Research Network for Philosophy and Technology



This conference takes the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge appeared in 1979, to readdress the concept of the postmodern and its legacy today. The Postmodern condition and Lyotard’s other writings after 1979 remain a prophecy of our epoch: the judgment that Lyotard made on the transformation of the production of knowledge and the social organization by the new technology is not only valid but also bears increasing importance for a critical reassessment of an epoch dominated by discourses on AI, Machine Learning, and technological singularity.


Historically speaking, if the postmodern is considered a rupture from the European modernity and an invitation to critically understand the transformation of our society, this discourse remains very much a European one. Because what does it mean by modernity outside of Europe? If it is true, as claimed by some European intellectuals, that non-European countries, for example China, only have modernization but not modernity, then what does postmodern mean to cultures that didn’t have that kind of modernity which was target of Lyotard’s discourse? Or the embracement of the postmodern in non-European cultures in general remains nothing but a blind spot of their own intellectual reflections? Or the axis of time, which indicates a progress from premodern—modern—postmodern is nothing but a fabrication that has to be put into question? And if so, in what way can the question of world history be rearticulated in view of the technological convergence that we have today? Is it still possible to articulate different technological futures beyond this synchronization?


What would be the contribution of art in this process of re-opening, both the postmodern and after? This is a question that concerns the later Lyotard. In his 1985 Exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou titled Les Immatériaux, and his 1988 publication The Inhuman, Lyotard attempted to expose the potential transformative power of digital technology and its limit, by appealing to art and, and somewhat astonishingly, the teaching of the 13th century Japanese monk Dōgen Kigen. Les Immatériaux remains one of the most significant exhibitions in the 20th century. How can we evaluate these reflections and efforts of the late Lyotard since 1979? This symposium would like to gather scholars who have been working on Lyotard to critically reflect together on these questions, but also beyond Lyotard and his time.


November 9, Saturday


8:30 -9:00 Participants Admission


9:00-10:00 Opening Speeches

Gao Shiming (Vice-president of the China Academy of Art)

Yuk Hui (Initiator of Symposium): Postmoderns and after?


10:00 -11:00  Session I

Speaker: Bernard Stiegler

De la fable postmoderne, à la fabuleuse ère Néguanthropocène.


11:00 -12:00  Session II

Speaker: Sarah Wilson

Philosophy as vanitas: Lyotard’s exploded Sublime

12:00 -14:00 Lunch and Rest


14:00-15:00  Session III

Speaker: Yuk Hui

Exhibiting and Sensibilizing: Recontextualizing “Les Immatériaux”


Break Time


15:30-16:30 Session IV

Speaker: Philippe Parreno

A Sequel to Les Immatériaux?


16:30-17:30  Session V

Conclusion and Discussion of the First Day


18:00-20:00 Supper


November 10, Sunday


9:30-10:30  Session VI

Speaker: Li Yang

Lyotard and the Genealogy of Cinema-alien


Break Time


11:00-12:00 Session VII

Speaker: Ashley Woodward

System Failure


12:00 -14:00 Lunch and Rest


14:00-15:00  Session VIII

Speaker: Hiroki Azuma

How Can Database Animals Be Political Animals?


Break Time


15:30-16:30 Session IX

Roundtable Discussion: All Participants


Ashley Woodward

Ashley Woodward

System Failure


In considering the legacy of The Postmodern Condition 40 years after its publication, it is prudent to begin with Lyotard’s own later reflections. He took the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 as confirmation of his famous earlier thesis of widespread ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ For him, this signaled the end of what he called ‘tragic politics’ – a struggle on the world stage in which the stake was which system would govern human life. For him, Marxism was now confirmed as a defunct metanarrative, and the system which had won out was liberal democratic capitalism, governed by a technological-economic principle of ‘performativity.’ Lyotard’s pessimistic view until his death in 1998 was that there was now no alternative to this system, and politics was reduced to its fine-tuning on the one hand, and resistance to it in the form of individual acts such as ‘writing,’ on the other. Lyotard’s later view of ‘the postmodern condition,’ then, was that of a hegemonic global system which was stable and self-regulating, having defeated all competitors and proven itself the most efficient.


Lyotard did not believe that a ‘political science’ was possible, and his views were based in a methodology derived from a reading of Kant, in which judgements may be made on the basis of feelings attached to significant historical events. The events which led to his diagnosis of ‘the postmodern condition’ were ones which he took to replace enthusiasm about progress with disappointment and melancholy (above all, the Shoah). Considering Lyotard’s thesis in the light of his own methodology, I argue that it is no longer possible to view the world in the way that he did in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties. While for Lyotard the direst prospect was the hegemony of a hyper-rationalized, stable system, threatened only by the death of the sun in 5 billion years, only a few decades later it is no longer possible to view the world this way. A number of key historical events point to massive fault-lines that have appeared in this system, such as September 11, 2001, the global economic crisis of 2007-8, or the election of Trump and the Brexit vote in 2016. Harder to date but more dire is the growing awareness of impending environmental catastrophe. The result, I argue, is that it is no longer plausible to see the world as a well-regulated, highly performative system, but rather, it appears to be one which is facing various forms of ‘system failure.’ At the same time, much of what Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition has only been confirmed: the idea of progress embodied in old metanarratives remains doubtful, and the logic of ‘performativity,’ in its various economic, technological, and cultural forms, pervades social institutions and practices more than ever. The result, I suggest, is a system which continues to fine-tune itself even as it fails.

Dr Ashley Woodward is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee, Scotland. He was born in Australia, where he obtained a PhD and taught in philosophy and creative arts programmes at a number of universities. He is a founding member of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy and an editor of Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy. His research interests revolve around existential meaning, philosophy of art, and philosophy of information. Much of his work has focused on and been inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-François Lyotard. His published books include Nihilism in Postmodernity: Lyotard, Baudrillard, Vattimo (Davies Group 2009), Lyotard and the Inhuman Condition: Reflections on Nihilism, Information, and Art (Edinburgh UP 2016), and, with Graham Jones, the edited book Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film (Edinburgh UP 2017). His book Lyotard’s Philosophy of Art is forthcoming.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson

Philosophy as vanitas: Lyotard’s exploded Sublime


This paper investigates two artists and their paintings within the 1970s French context of Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: Gérard Fromanger’s history painting of a microprocessor ironically titled And you my love, my heart, my life, 1978, and Jacques Monory’s later paintings of stars, nebulae and galaxies following his trip with Lyotard to Silicon Valley, California. These ‘artwork-events’ were screened out by Lyotard’s better-known text around Barnett Newman in ‘The Sublime and the Avant-garde’ (Artforum, New York, 1984).


René Descartes’ disembodied cogito, (‘I think, therefore I am’, 1637), preceded Blaise Pascal’s indictment of painting perceived as an imitative ‘vanity’ (1670). The French Enlightenment ratified self-assurance of the philosophising, male Cartesian subject. This was irrevocably decentered, however, by the post-1945 communications explosion and circulation of images across different culture, ideologies, time zones and space itself. Marshal McCluhan described the new TV-connected ‘global village’; Fromanger documented the simultaneous existence of a French poet within the palatial kitsch of a Versailles party, and a Chinese peasant painter at work. Both time zones and star maps figure in the presentation of his microprocessor painting in 1980.


Lyotard experienced a double decentering: not only space and time zones within the ‘otherness’ of Cold War America, but painting’s potential to explode philosophy’s logocentrism. He was fascinated by Monory’s star paintings which continued the vanitas tradition: a reflection not upon representation (Pascal) but upon human mortality. Based on computer-generated star maps, they rendered the Kantian sublime obsolete: a philosophical concept itself exploded in the context of time-space exploration and binary number-based computer codes. That huge Californian satellite dishes and military technologies could generate personal writing and thinking tools (the personal computer), that ‘star banks’ could become personal image banks, that metanarratives themselves could dissolve in the ‘behind-the-screen digital’, were lived and thought experiences for Lyotard, as he imagined the giant spectacle-compendium of Les Immatériaux, 1985. Despite the revered philosophical genealogies which thread his text, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-garde’, Kant becomes a dead star, displaced in his last works by Galileo and Saint Augustine. As art becomes ‘Art after Philosophy’ (Joseph Kosuth’s proposition), as the boundaries between art and the new reproductive technologies start to blur, as Lyotard himself experiments with film and art films, philosophy as a discipline in itself becomes, I argue, a vanitas.

Sarah Wilson is Professor of the History of Modern and Contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. At the Courtauld she teaches an MA course, ‘Global Conceptualism’ generated in 2011 with Professor Boris Groys, She has published The Visual World of French Theory: Figurations 2010 (French 2018), spurred by work on the Lyotard-Jacques Monory encounter, and Picasso/Marx and Socialist realism in France, 2013. She is working on Photography, Body, Material, Concept: The Visual World of French Theory, vol. 2, again involving the texts of Jean-François Lyotard on Daniel Buren and Ruth Francken. She was principal curator of Paris , Capital of the Arts, 1900-1968 (Royal Academy London, Guggenheim Bilbao, 2002-3) and Pierre Klossowski, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2006, touring to Cologne and Paris. A close relationship with the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, has extended throughout her career. Sarah Wilson was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres awarded by the French government for services to French culture in 1997. In 2015 she was a curator of the Ist Asian Biennale / 5th Guangzhou Triennale at the Guangdong Museum of Art and was awarded the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) prize for her distinguished contribution to art criticism.


Sarah Wilson’s former students hold prestigious posts in many museums and galleries worldwide; they teach at the universities of Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool, Amsterdam among others; she taught Jeremy Deller who represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, 2013 and is proud of the Courtauld’s worldwide network. More is available on her personal website including the full range of published work and research supervision.

Hiroki Azuma

Hiroki Azuma

How Can Database Animals Be Political Animals?


In my book On Animalizing Postmodernity (2001), published in English under the title of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, I argued that today’s consumers should be described as “database animals” who are living their social lives apart from any idea of the grand narrative, which Lyotard defined as the basis of modernity in his book The Postmodern Condition, published in 1979. My argument was founded on my observation of young Japanese fans of anime called otakus. However, the idea of human beings as database animals is becoming increasingly relevant as we are now watching public spaces being rapidly replaced by social networks, and a new kind of governmentality based on the so-called “big data” is emerging all over the world. Hegel’s (and Marx’s) grand narrative historically connected humans and politics as the principle of nation state and civil society. How can the relationship between human beings and politics be transformed after the collapse of the grand narrative? How can we reestablish a political space based on the database instead of the narrative? How can database animals be political animals?

Hiroki Azuma is a philosopher and critic. He was born in Tokyo in 1971 and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo. After many years in the academic world, Azuma founded his own institute Genron Co.,Ltd, which curates dialogues, events and publishes the magazine Genron. Azuma is one of the most renowned critics in Japan and published numerous books including Ontological, Postal: On Jacques Derrida(1998, Suntory Prize), On Animalizing Postmodernity (2001, English translation in 2009 under the title of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals), General Will 2.0(2011, English translation in 2014), and A Philosophy of the Tourist (2017, Mainichi Publishing Culture Award). He is also the author of the Mishima Prize winning novel Quantum Families (2009).

Yuk Hui

Yuk Hui

Exhibiting and Sensibilizing: Recontextualizing “Les Immatériaux”


From The Postmodern Condition (1979) to Inhuman (1988), Lyotard described the technological transformation of our society towards the end of the 20th century, and ceaselessly articulated a new sensibility already in formation but yet to be awaken. This sensibility is what we may call the postmodern episteme in the sense of Michel Foucault’s use of the term, though Lyotard didn’t employ the same term. In 1985, in the form of an exhibition titled Les Immatériaux, Lyotard with his team construct a scene in which this postmodern episteme is elaborated through various scenarios, industrial objects and art works. The reason for which Lyotard preferred calling it a manifestation instead of exhibition, is because the centre of discourse and the object of the show is sensibility. However, how can sensibility be an object of exhibition? It is in this exhibition, I propose, that Lyotard returned to the fundamental question and the task of art in the technological age, which remains an important inspiration and will demand our recontextualization in light of our current technological condition.

Yuk Hui currently teaches at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany. Between 2012 to 2018, he taught philosophy at the Leuphana University Lüneburg; he is also researcher at the Centre international des études Simondonienne in Paris,  visiting professor at the China Academy of Art, and was visiting associate professor at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong and visiting faculty at the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow. Between 2013-2015 he carried out a research project on Lyotard’s 1985 exhibition Les Immatériaux and co-edited an anthology 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science and Theory (2015), and author of On the Existence of Digital Objects (prefaced by Bernard Stiegler, University of Minnesota Press, March 2016), The Question Concerning Technology in China. An Essay in Cosmotechnics (Urbanomic, December 2016), Recursivity and Contingency (prefaced by Howard Caygill, Rowman and Littlefield International, March 2019).

Bernard Stiegler

Bernard Stiegler

From the «postmodern fable » to the fabulous Negantropocene Era

Reading Lyotard in the 21st Century


To take care of the anthropy, neguanthropy and anti-anthropie with Lyotard and beyond (it is also to say: beyond the West, its perimeter and its temporality): such will be the object of my communication, which will propose – after having clarified the main concepts of what I call a neguanthropology – a reading of this fable coming from Postmodern Moralities in the context that the Anthropocene era constitutes for us, and of which Lyotard does not envisage the limits.


We will of course also draw on the sources of The Postmodern Condition and the Inhuman. We maintain that the stake of the fable is undoubtedly less to know what the humanity will be when confronting the death of the Sun, like what Lyotard has reminded us in the fable, than to ask: in the light of a such fable, and of what is called the fabularity—such as the “fabulative function” that Bergson confronted with in The two sources of morality and religion and the Fable of Francis Ponge to Derrida—what can noesis become (de-venir), or what can come (ad-venir) from it?

Bernard Stiegler (1952) is a French philosopher based in Paris. He is president of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation (IRI), which he founded in 2006 at the Centre Georges-Pompidou. He is also a professor at the University of Technology of Compiègne where he teaches philosophy. Before taking up the post at the Pompidou Center, he was program director at the International College of Philosophy, Deputy Director General of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, then Director General at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM, 2002-2005).


Professor Stiegler has published numerous books and articles on philosophy, technology, digitization, capitalism, consumer culture, etc. Among his writings, his three volumes of La technique et le temps (in English as Technics and Time), two volumes of De la misère symbolique, three volumes of Mécréance et discrédit and two volumes Constituer l’Europe are particularly well known. Professor Stiegler has a long term engagement with the relation between technology and philosophy, not only in a theoretical sense, but also situating them in industry and society as practices. He is one of the founders of the political group Ars Industrialis based in Paris, which calls for an industrial politics of spirit, by exploring the possibilities of the technology of spirit, to bring forth a new “life of the mind”. He published extensively on the problem of individuation in consumer capitalism, and he is working on the new possibility of an economy of contribution.


He led several research programmes in the domain of digital technologies applied to text, image, and sound, and he conceived and organised the Mémoires du Futur exhibition, presented at the Centre Pompidou in 1987.


Li Yang

Li Yang

Lyotard and the Genealogy of Cinema-alien


Jean-François Lyotard put forward the theory of “acinema” and its two possibilities based on “Libidinal Economy”. There are two forms of film movement as anti-libido devices which namely experimental film and underground film individually represent extremely static and extremely movement. That provides theoretical narrative for genealogy of experimental film in French contemporary philosophy in earliest time. He developed the discussion of “Anti-cinema” in his late film paper which provided research method for the form of Genealogy of “Cinema-alien”.

Li Yang is the vice-dean of the School of Arts of the Peking University, professor, doctoral supervisor as well as film producer. His main research interest is history of European film, film theory and western contemporary art theory. He graduated from the Université de Lille III with a doctorate in film studies. He is the senior visiting scholar of the ERASMUS program of the European Community of Colleges. He has hosted and participated in 7 projects supported by the national social science fund and has published more than 40 academic papers in journals such as WenYi YanJiu, Theoretical Studies in Literature and Art, Film Art and etc. He has published numerous books including Les gestes du western de Sergio Leone: pour une introduction à l’analyse gestuelle des films, The Ethics of View, Cinephilia: The History of Culture, etc. He is the chief editor of “Cinephilia Series” collection and has translated Cinema (written by Alain Badiou), Conversations avec Sergio Leone and Abbas Kiarostami: Cahiers du Cinema Livres into Chinese.

Philippe Parreno

Philippe Parreno

A Sequel to Les Immatériaux?


Les Immatériaux is one of the first exhibitions to imagine our digital future avant la lettre. The exhibition’s title may be translated as “The Immaterials” or “The Non-Materials.” For Lyotard it not only reflects a shift in the materials we use, but also in the very meaning of the term “material.” For the exhibition design, Lyotard conceived an open, labyrinthine parcours with one entrance and one exit but multiple possible pathways through the space. Walls were not solid structures but rather gray webs that stretched from floor to ceiling. Visitors wore headphones and listened to radio transmissions that faded in and out as they moved through the exhibition.


As Lyotard explained in the exhibition catalogue: “We wanted to awaken a sensibility, certainly not to indoctrinate minds. The exhibition is a postmodern dramaturgy. No heroes, no myths. A labyrinth of situations organized by questions: our sites. The visitor, in his solitude, is summoned to choose his way at the crossings of the webs that hold him and voices that call him. If we had answers, a ‘doctrine,’ why all this trouble? We would have raised our creed.”


What could we invent as a sequel to this?

Philippe Parreno is a contemporary French artist whose multidisciplinary practice includes collaborations with Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. As part of his practice, Parreno examines how systems of representation as well as memories produce meaning. The artist’s incomplete film script L’Histoire d’un sentiment (1996), is gesture that calls attention to the narrative of producing through imagining a fictional creative project which will never be made. “What I would say is that without people like Daniel Buren or Larry Weiner I would have been really ashamed to proclaim myself a Conceptual artist,” he explained. Born in 1964 in Oran, Algeria, he grew up in Grenoble, France, attending the city’s École des Beaux-Arts before moving to Paris to study at the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques at the Palais de Tokyo. First rising to prominence in the 1990s, his early works include video-conference lectures which incorporate footage from popular television shows and movies. In the years that followed, the artist has produced both visual works and written texts analyzing a number of topics. He continues to live and work in Paris, France. Today, Parreno’s work are held in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, among others.

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