Lyotard on Postmodern Music

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This paper delineates the idea of postmodern music as it is found in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard’s concept of the postmodern in general has informed debates about what “postmodern music” might be, but his own writings on music have not been given their due weight in such debates. While he never defines such a concept explicitly in his writings, it may be extrapolated from them. In the essay “Music and Postmodernity” he draws an analogy between the liberation of “Man” in socio-political modernity and the liberation of sonic material in musical modernity. While Lyotard does not quite make this explicit, the implication (I will argue) is that for him an event, analogous to the well-known “end of metanarratives” which signals the transition to postmodernity, is evident in the history of music. Just as the development of the Enlightenment project has resulted in a breakdown of the narratives of the emancipation of Man, so too the successful liberation of sound in musical modernity has led to the explosion of a coherent narrative of musical “progress,” instituting something like a musical postmodernity. Instead of any idea of general eclecticism following from this, however, Lyotard is clear about the stakes of postmodern music (as of all art): those stakes concern the aesthetic of the sublime, and mean searching for “the inaudible” in the audible, through any and all means of experimentation on sonorous matter. The upshot is that while Lyotard endorses a kind of heterogeneity in his approach to postmodern music, he denies the loss of all critical stakes which is often thought to attend such a position.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-143
JournalEvental Aesthetics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Jean-François Lyotard
  • postmodern music
  • poststructuralism
  • sublime
  • timbre


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