Metanarrative

Metanarrative

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A metanarrative in critical theory
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

 and particularly postmodernism
Postmodernism
Postmodernism is a philosophical movement evolved in reaction to modernism, the tendency in contemporary culture to accept only objective truth and to be inherently suspicious towards a global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. Postmodernist thought is an intentional departure from the...

, is an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge. According to John Stephens, it "is a global or totalizing cultural narrative
Universality (philosophy)
In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe...

 schema
Schema (psychology)
A schema , in psychology and cognitive science, describes any of several concepts including:* An organized pattern of thought or behavior.* A structured cluster of pre-conceived ideas....

 which orders and explains knowledge
Knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

 and experience
Experience
Experience as a general concept comprises knowledge of or skill in or observation of some thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing or event....

". The prefix meta
Meta
Meta- , is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter....

-
means "beyond" and is here used to mean "about", and narrative
Narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

is a story constructed in a sequential fashion. Therefore, a metanarrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other "little stories" within conceptual model
Conceptual model
In the most general sense, a model is anything used in any way to represent anything else. Some models are physical objects, for instance, a toy model which may be assembled, and may even be made to work like the object it represents. They are used to help us know and understand the subject matter...

s that make the stories into a whole.

In postmodern philosophy, a metanarrative is an untold story that unifies and totalizes the world, and justifies a culture's power structures. Examples of these stories are nationalism
Nationalism
Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms, i.e. a nation. In the 'modernist' image of the nation, it is nationalism that creates national identity. There are various definitions for what...

s, religion
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

, and science
Science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

, to name a few. Metanarratives are not usually told outright, but are reinforced by other more specific narratives told within the culture.

In communication
Communication
Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. Communication requires a sender, a message, and an intended recipient, although the receiver need not be present or aware of the sender's intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast...

 and strategic communication
Strategic Communication
Strategic Communication can mean either communicating a concept, a process, or data that satisfies a long term strategic goal of an organization by allowing facilitation of advanced planning, or communicating over long distances usually using international telecommunications or dedicated global...

, a master narrative (or metanarrative) is a "transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture." A master narrative is therefore a particular type of narrative, which is defined as a "coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that share a common rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by establishing audience expectations according to the known trajectories of its literary and rhetorical form."

The Consortium for Strategic Communication
Consortium for Strategic Communication
The Consortium for Strategic Communication is a think-tank at Arizona State University.-History:The Consortium for Strategic Communication is an initiative of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University...

 also maintains a website on master narratives.

Examples of metanarratives


There is only one metanarrative as defined by Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition...

. Modernists and philosophers address the problem by telling a story
Narrative
A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

—the story of progress through universal human reason
Reason
Reason is a term that refers to the capacity human beings have to make sense of things, to establish and verify facts, and to change or justify practices, institutions, and beliefs. It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, ...

, as Logos triumphs over Mythos. The problem is that once a proof is accepted as the standard of believability not only must we prove our claims, we must also prove our proofs, and so on, ad infinitum. This is what Lyotard was referring to when he made the claim that the postmodern condition is one of incredulity toward metanarratives.

Poststructuralist skepticism toward metanarratives


The concept of metanarrative was introduced and criticized by Jean-François Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition...

 in his work, The Postmodern Condition
The Postmodern Condition
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge is a short but influential philosophy book by Jean-François Lyotard in which he analyzes the epistemology of postmodern culture as the end of 'grand narratives' or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity. The book was...

: A Report on Knowledge
(1979). In this text, Lyotard refers to what he describes as the postmodern condition, which he characterized as increasing skepticism toward the totalizing nature
Universality (philosophy)
In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe...

 of metanarratives and their reliance on some form of "transcendent and universal truth":
Lyotard and many other poststructuralist
Post-structuralism
Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s...

 thinkers view this as a positive development for a number of reasons. First, attempts to construct grand theories tend to dismiss the naturally existing chaos and disorder of the universe. Second, metanarratives are created and reinforced by power structure
Power structure
Power Structure may refer to:* Hierarchy* The Establishment...

s and are therefore not to be trusted. Metanarratives ignore the heterogeneity or variety of human existence. They are also seen to embody unacceptable views of historical development, in terms of progress towards a specific goal. The latent diverse passions of human beings will always make it impossible for them to be marshalled under some theoretical doctrine and this is one of the reasons given for the collapse of the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 in the early 1990s.

Replacing grand, universal narratives with small, local narratives


According to the advocates of postmodernism, metanarratives have lost their power to convince – they are, literally, stories that are told in order to legitimise various versions of 'the truth'. With the transition from modern to postmodern, Lyotard proposes that metanarratives should give way to petits récits, or more modest and "localized" narratives. Borrowing from the works of Wittgenstein and his theory of the "models of discourse," Lyotard constructs his vision of a progressive politics that is grounded in the cohabitation of a whole range of diverse and always locally legitimated language games
Language-game
A language-game is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven.- Description :...

. Postmodernists attempt to replace metanarratives by focusing on specific local contexts as well as the diversity of human experience. They argue for the existence of a "multiplicity of theoretical standpoints" rather than grand, all-encompassing theories.

Is poststructuralism a metanarrative?



Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition...

's analysis of the postmodern condition has been criticized as being internally inconsistent. For example, thinkers like Alex Callinicos
Alex Callinicos
Alexander Theodore Callinicos is a Trotskyist political theorist, a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and its International Secretary, and is Director of the Centre for European Studies at King's College London...

 and Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas is a German sociologist and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of 'communicative rationality' and the 'public sphere'...

 argue that Lyotard's description of the postmodern world as containing an "incredulity toward metanarratives" could be seen as a metanarrative in itself. According to this view, post-structuralist thinkers like Lyotard criticise universal rules but postulate that postmodernity contains a universal skepticism toward metanarratives; and this 'universal skepticism' is in itself a contemporary metanarrative. Like a post-modern neo-romanticist metanarrative that intends to build up a 'meta' critic, or 'meta' discourse and a 'meta' belief holding up that Western science is just taxonomist, empiricist, utilitarian, assuming a supposed sovereignty around its own reason and pretending to be neutral, rigorous and universal. This is itself an obvious sample of another 'meta' story, self-contradicting the postmodern critique of the metanarrative.

Thus, Lyotard's postmodern incredulity towards metanarratives could be said to be self-refuting. If one is skeptical of universal narratives such as 'truth
Truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

', 'knowledge
Knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

', 'right', or 'wrong', then there is no basis for believing the 'truth' that metanarratives are being undermined. In this sense, this paradox of postmodernism is similar to the liar's paradox ("This statement is false.") Perhaps postmodernists, like Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard
Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition...

, are not offering us a utopian, teleological metanarrative, but in many respects their arguments are open to metanarrative interpretation. They place much emphasis on the irrational, though in doing so apply the instruments of reason..

But of course, that is only from a modernist perspective, since such an argument against postmodernism is an attempt towards making a totalizing metanarrative of postmodernism, an attempt to deconstruct
Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading...

 postmodernism using totalizing criticisms of a supposed a priori of postmodernism
Postmodernism
Postmodernism is a philosophical movement evolved in reaction to modernism, the tendency in contemporary culture to accept only objective truth and to be inherently suspicious towards a global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. Postmodernist thought is an intentional departure from the...

, assuming that postmodernism follows the linear categorical logic of modernism
Modernism
Modernism, in its broadest definition, is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement, its set of cultural tendencies and array of associated cultural movements, originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to Western society...

, when postmodernism really uses the categories of logic in a contingent fashion, in an incredulity while taking in account of the multiplicitous nature of language-games and their limitations in ascent to a discovery of a higher truth of paralogy
Paralogy
Paralogy may refer to:* Paralogy - see Homology * Paralogy - see Jean-François Lyotard - in this context, paralogy means the movement against an established way of reasoning...

.

Further reading

  • Halverson, Jeffry R., H. L. Goodall Jr. and Steven R. Corman. Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. ISBN 978-0230108967
  • Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition
    The Postmodern Condition
    The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge is a short but influential philosophy book by Jean-François Lyotard in which he analyzes the epistemology of postmodern culture as the end of 'grand narratives' or metanarratives, which he considers a quintessential feature of modernity. The book was...

    : A Report on Knowledge
    . Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984, reprint 1997. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi.
  • Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum (1998). Retelling Stories, Framing Culture : Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature. ISBN 0-8153-1298-9.