Critically evaluate Postmodernity and Ideology, and explore their usefulness and their limitations in reading a literary text.

Jean Francois Lyotard and his ‘The Post Modern Condition’ written in 1979 analysed how knowledge is created by the state and perceived by the people. It concerned itself with how knowledge is legitimised and expressed how the era of the grand narrative was in turmoil. In this essay he discusses how all culture and knowledge are inevitably bound by the state and how he seeks to expose this. He thinks the breakdown of a single, overriding narrative is a step forward and wants a ‘cut off from any unifying frameworks of belief’ (Butler, 2002: 60), instead vying for local reforms. Theodor Adorno was a Marxist critic devoted to high aesthetic art and the unity of society. Immediately there is a conflict in theories between Lyotard and Adorno. Adorno in his essay ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ thinks that texts should not be overtly political but instead be a genuine work of art which sufficiently criticise the bad totalities of society believing that high aesthetics of art might awaken the victim of the culture industry from conformism.

The literary text that both these theories will be applied to is ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. Published just after World War Two, it was a political satire merged with an allegory fable that criticised Stalin’s Russia and acted as a wider criticism of state control.  Orwell shared a familiar twentieth century hope of a socialist revolution. He thought that those for who revolutions were intended were ‘more often victims than beneficiaries’ (Bradbury, 2000: xiv) and wanted to encourage a revolution that would create social unity and freedom. Application of Lyotard and Adorno to ‘Animal Farm’ proves to be useful and limited.  This essay will look at Lyotard’s take on grand narratives, the ‘spirit of life’ notion and suspicion towards the state and Adorno’s views on revolution, aesthetics and committed art.

Lyotard takes issue with the grand narrative that he believes dictates peoples’ lives. In his ‘Postmodern Condition’ essay he suggests that

‘The state resorts to the narrative for freedom every time it assumes direct control over the training of the ‘people’ under the name of the ‘nation’, in order to point them down the path of progress’  (Easthope and McGowan, 2004: p206)

This is the idea that the state dangles the promise of freedom in front of people in order to control them. Their suggestions on the surface seem to be beneficial but they actually hinder true freedom. This features in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. When proposing the idea of the windmill, Snowball claims that after the windmill is built ‘so much labour would be saved that the animals would only need to work three days a week’(Orwell, 2000: p37). This never comes to fruition but the promise of less work is a ploy used by Snowball to try and gain votes. Another example of the grand narrative being deployed by state control is the propaganda used by Napoleon and Squealer against Snowball. After Snowball is excommunicated, he is blamed for all the problems on Animal farm. After the windmill is destroyed Napoleon asks ‘Do you know the enemy who has come in the night and overthrown our windmill?’ (Orwell, 2000: p52) and this rhetorical question is immediately answered with ‘SNOWBALL!’ (Orwell, 2000: p52) This is a meta-narrative used by the pigs to convince other animals that they are not the enemy but the protectors. It causes the animals to think that they are in the best scenario possible under such leadership; a metaphor for the state-people relationship.

Lyotard and his attack on grand narratives includes the narrative of Marxism. He believed that Marxist revolutions had failed, an idea shared by Adorno as well, but he differed in thinking that a social unity was no longer the ideal progression to freedom. Orwell shared this view that grand narratives were not working and expressed this in ‘Animal Farm’ as Clover confesses that ‘she did not know why-they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind’ (Orwell, 2000: p64) The revolution had failed. It had all gone wrong and violent revolutions were clearly not the answer to humanities problem of acquiring freedom. The pigs ‘fought to perpetuate themselves as opposed to the interests of those whom the revolution was meant to serve’ (Bradbury, 2000: pXIV). However, Orwell still wanted to ‘reconstruct society’ (Bradbury, 2000: pXIV) and achieve true freedom disagreeing with Lyotard’s micro politics ideal. In ‘Animal Farm’, although it points out the repercussions of meta-narratives, it shows no sign of them ending with the pigs still very much in charge. Grand narratives still exist and Lyotard’s opinion that they are collapsing seems to be flawed. Even today people are ‘willing to kill one another in the name of grand narratives every day’ (Butler, 2002: 14) in the form of religion and so in this respect Lyotard’s theory seems to be limited.

Adorno and Orwell both agreed that social unity was progression for humanity, unlike Lyotard, but also agreed that violent revolution was jaded.  Adorno was a controversial Marxist because of his views on the Marxist revolution and modernist literature. He and Lukacs, a fellow Marxist, held opposing views on the progression of society. Lukacs thought that class consciousness and consequent proletariat rising was still imperative in defeating capitalism. However, Adorno recognised that the violent uprisings had so far failed and thought a new direction was needed. He sided with the idea of a Marxist Utopia that did not believe in any form of class struggle to be necessary for socialism to emerge. They thought that education and thinking was a greater resistance to the state.  Adorno’s ‘commitment to education rather than direct political action as a means of combating the legacy of fascism’ (Cook, 2008: p133) echoes this and emphasises his controversy. Adorno even went as far to say that the opposition to a utopia were not only ‘merely misguided’ (Jay, 1984: 64) but ‘potentially pernicious as well’ (Jay, 1984: 64). Orwell seems to have shared a similar view to Adorno. The whole of ‘Animal Farm’ is a metaphor for the failure of ‘modern mass revolutions, and the drive inside them toward totalitarianism’ (Bradbury, 2000: viii). The pigs become human; the rebels become totalitarian.

A major criticism of Adorno and Lyotard is that they are both able to point out the flaws of critical theory but do not have any ideas of progress themselves. Gehard Schweppenhauser discusses in his book ‘Theodor Adorno: An introduction’ on page 77 how ‘Adorno gives us no detailed picture of utopia. He refuses to conjure up images of the better condition’. Adorno expresses his dissatisfaction with Marxist revolution but does not give any real indication on how to solve this other than education which proves to be rather vague. Lyotard is similarly unable to provide an answer to his problem with the legitimation and delegitimation of knowledge. Not just Lyotard but all post modernists are considered to be ‘terrible constructors’ (Butler, 2002: 116) and this could be because they are ‘by and large pessimists, many of them haunted by lost revolutionary hopes’ (Butler, 2002: 114). Lyotard suggests ‘supervention of a micropolitics which will attend to the local and the specific without recourse to some grand programme’ (Docherty, 2006: 4) but he focuses on the criticism of grand narratives rather than the benefits of local reforms. ‘Animal Farm’ follows this example as well as it criticises the revolutionary process and the regime in place after such resolution but it does not give an example of a better scenario.

Adorno was of the opinion that modernist works of literature should be of the highest aesthetic standard. He thought that these writings would enlighten those that could interpret them and as a result, awaken themselves to the capitalist, state-controlled reality. He was an advocate of the modernist writers Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka who’s work provided an ‘inescapability [that] [compelled] the change of attitude which committed works merely demanded’ (Adorno, 2007: p191) Adorno expanded on Jean Paul Sartre’s committed concept which specified that all literature has a committed social function, by saying that works of literature should instead be autonomous; that is to say free of political or social influence. Adorno commented on the difference saying that ‘when literary works no longer speak as though they were reporting fact, hairs start to bristle’ (Adorno, 2007: p180). He believed that literature should be an aesthetic masterpiece rather than a political message. This is where Adorno and Lukacs clash the most. Adorno supported the modernist, autonomous style of literature where as Lukacs supported the more traditional Marxist view of realist, committed work. The modernist novel explored the inner self portraying real life and the isolation of an individual from society. Realist novels expressed people’s everyday lives but focused on the character and were without any decorative language. Lukacs in the preface to his ‘The Theory of the Novel’, suggests that Adorno has ‘taken residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss…on the edge of the abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity’ (Lukacs, 1974: p22) essentially calling Adorno an elitist who betrayed the political implications of his own work.

‘Animal Farm’ is not a typical modernist novel drawing on classic fable allegories. Orwell describes himself as political writer rather than a novelist and his ‘novel’ is a blatant piece of political work and therefore could be considered committed. It is certainly not a piece of high aesthetic art that creates itself for art’s sake with Orwell perfecting his ‘plain style [and] no-nonsense manner’ (Bradbury, 2000: x) creating a sound of ‘truth frankly expressing itself’ (Bradbury, 2000: x). Orwell seems to representing the characteristics of the committed novel. However, Orwell was not trying to create great piece of art stating that ‘political commitment is the enemy of self-expression and great art’ (Bounds, 2009: p86). In addition to this he also insisted that

‘all works of literature are intrinsically political and have definite political effects. On the other hand, suspicious of the excessively partisan approach of some of his Marxist contemporaries, he also warned that certain types of political commitment can end up having a disastrous effect both on literary criticism and on literature itself’ (Bounds, 2009: p86)

With this he seems to be a compromise between Adorno and Lukacs. He insists that all literature has a political nature; it is inevitable but he is suspicious of overtly political texts that damage literature. Orwell’s fable has to be matter of fact and avoidant of high aesthetics to be consistent with its format and so in this respect Adorno could not really criticise it for this. Also, Orwell makes clear that he was not trying to create a piece of great art and so again Adorno would find it difficult to criticise ‘Animal Farm’. The novel still does inspire people to regain their class consciousness.

Orwell was a writer of suspicion; his greatest suspicion was that of the state and their influence of society. Lyotard in his essay also has suspicions about the state and how they legitimise knowledge. He feels as if political legitimation concerns itself with being just before it does truth resulting in a ‘final analysis [lying] outside the realm of scientific knowledge’ (Easthope and McGowan, 2004: p207) suggesting that the information the state relays to the public is always concerned with a moral just rather than an absolute truth. However, he also says that science has its own truths which ‘continually renews itself on its own, with no constraint or determined goal whatsoever’ (Easthope and McGowan, 2004: 207) meaning that science continually works to provide truth. It has not aligned itself with this ‘just’ nature of the state. This contradiction, Lyotard says, calls for a notion he addresses as ‘the spirit of life’ which is a single, three fold aspiration:

‘that of deriving everything from an original principle (scientific activity), that of relating everything to an ideal (ethical and social practice) and that of unifying this principle and this ideal in a single idea (ensuring the scientific search for true causes always coincides with the pursuit of just ends in moral and political life).’ (Easthope and McGowan, 2004: P207)

Lyotard believes that the state takes the truthful knowledge from science and combines this with the intention of it being politically and socially just and then they release this one combined piece of information to the public. ‘Animal Farm’ echoes this idea in chapter three when Squealer is explaining to the rest of the farm why all the apples and milk was going to the pigs:

‘Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depends on us.’ (Orwell, 2000: p25)

The pigs take information produced by science about the health benefits of apples and milk and manipulate it to justify their possession of all the apples and milk. They even go as far as pretending that they do not like them and this reasoning along, with the apparent necessity to ensure the pigs health, is enough to convince the rest of the farm that this is a just and truthful reason. The spirit of life concept highlights how easy it is for the state to manipulate the scientific truth into information that benefits them instead of the people. Linking back to the idea of the grand narrative alongside this idea of state control is a direct response to the work of Immanuel Kant; the ambassador for the modernity movement with his theory of enlightenment. Kant’s idea, referred to as ‘the age of reason’, placed the rational human being at the centre of society which he thought should have resulted in the struggle for democracy and discoveries in science. However, his idea did not encompass true freedom. Instead it was criticised for essentially saying argue but obey. The grand narrative and the spirit of life concept both stem from the idea of argue but obey and this is where Lyotard takes issue with Kant; this is what his attack is based upon. Lyotard wants the freedom that Kant began to realise but without the rules and restraints. Disagreeing with both Kant and Adorno in terms of Aesthetics, Lyotard states that ‘the aesthetics of the beautiful isn’t the aesthetics of truth’ (Benjamin, 1992: p3) and does not see the relationship between aesthetics and freedom.

Lyotard and Adorno both seem very capable of criticising the state and this is why applying their theories to ‘Animal Farm’ works so well. Lyotard attacks how grand narratives prevent the freedom of the people and instead ensure that the people in charge stay in such a powerful position. Even when the narrative is Marxist revolution, someone always leads the rebellion and ends up in charge of the state creating a whole new narrative that dictates the way people live. Adorno is more relevant when analysing ‘Animal Farm’ mainly because Orwell was ‘a socialist, a leftist, a Marxist, who sought to encourage social progress and equality’ (Roney, 2002: p18) much like Adorno who wanted a different approach to achieving freedom instead of the seemingly dated idea of violent revolution and overthrowing of the leaders by the people. Essentially, all three writers wanted to see society progress and move away from state control and all three were left wing socialists. The main difference was their stance on unity. All three continue to be influential today with their unique ideas although it could be argued that none of their ideas in ending state control and discovering freedom has come true and therefore, their works are slightly diminished. However, they still provide inspiration in the search for freedom.


Adorno, Theodor W. (2007) – Aesthetics and politics. London: Verso

Benjamin, A. (1992). Judging lyotard Routledge Ltd.

Butler, Christopher (2002). Postmodernism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cook, D. (2008). Theodor adorno: Key concepts Acumen Publishing.

Docherty, Thomas (1993). Postmodernism: a reader. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Easthope, Antony; McGowan, Kate (2004), 2nd ed. A critical and cultural theory reader. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Engelhard, K., & Dudley, W. (2014). Immanuel kant: Key concepts Routledge.

Jay, Martin (1984)- Adorno. London: Fontana

Orwell, George; Bradbury Malcolm (2000). Animal Farm. UK:  Penguin Modern Classics

Philip Bounds. (2009). Orwell and marxism: The political and cultural thinking of George Orwell international library of cultural studies 4 Ib Tauris & Co Ltd.

Roney, S. K. (2002). Postmodernist prose and George Orwell. Academic Questions, 15(2), 13-23. doi:10.1007/s12129-002-1071-6

Schweppenhauser, Gerhard (2009) – Theodor W. Adorno: an introduction. Durham: Duke University Press


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