Ashley Woodward - Lesson of Darkness: Phenomenology and Lyotard’s Aesthetics

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference, the Future of Phenomenology. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at

Ashley Woodward is lecturer in philosophy at the University of Dundee. He obtained a B.A. (Hons) at LaTrobe University and a PhD in philosophy at the University of Queensland. He is a founding member of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy and is an on-going editor of Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy. He is also a member of the Scottish Centre for Continental Philosophy: He has published three monographs: Lyotard: The Inhuman Condition. Reflections on Nihilism, Information, and Art. ( Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016); Understanding Nietzscheanism (Chesham: Acumen, 2011); Nihilism in Postmodernity: Lyotard, Baudrillard, Vattimo (Aurora, Colorado: The Davies Group, 2009). His most recent publication is an edited collection, Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film, ed. with Graham Jones (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Lesson of Darkness: Phenomenology and Lyotard’s Aesthetics

This paper examines the relationship of Jean-François Lyotard’s aesthetics to phenomenology, especially the works of Mikel Dufrenne and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It argues that Lyotard invents what could be called a postphenomenological aesthetics, which critiques and moves beyond key aspects of phenomenology, but nevertheless continues to be governed by problems of this tradition. Lyotard cites Merleau-Ponty as opening the problem of difference in the aesthetic field, yet believes that the phenomenological approach can never adequately account for it. Lyotard critiques Dufrenne and Merleau-Ponty on what he calls a ‘metaphysics of continuity’ which governs their works: the continuity is between silence and signification, or the dark ground of Being or Nature and the light of linguistic meaning. For both, the continuity is given through the mediation of expression, the immanence of the sensory in the poetic, and is grounded in a unitary ontology. Lyotard argues that these approaches cannot do justice to the radical alterity of aesthetic experience, and seeks to accentuate the differences between the sensory and language, and to locate difference in the transgressive and deconstructive effects between these two heterogenous orders. For Lyotard this is not simply an abstract theoretical matter, but one which concerns the capacity of art to be engaged in critical, political practice. After outlining Lyotard’s critiques of Dufrenne and Merleau-Ponty, the paper will demonstrate how his late aesthetics, which have received little critical attention, can be seen to return to phenomenological themes but in the form of a reversal. The last section will then clarify the notion of a postphenomenological aesthetics by noting the parallel between Lyotard’s work and some recent attempts to develop a Speculative Realist aesthetics: the suggestion that Kant’s third Critique outlines an access to the real beyond conceptual categories imposed by a subject is a path which Lyotard also explored. Lyotard’s ‘lesson of darkness’ is that the secret power of art can never be brought out into the light of phenomenal appearance, or be subordinated to a stratum of meaning continuous with knowledge, but can only be registered negatively as the mark of a deconstitution. Artworks do not testify to the birth of perception, but to its resurrection.

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