From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In critical theory, and particularly postmodernism, a metanarrative (from meta-narrative, sometimes also known as a master- or grand narrative) 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 schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience". The prefix meta- means "beyond" and is here used to mean "about", and narrative is a story constructed in a sequential fashion. Therefore, a metanarrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other "little stories" within totalizing schemes.
The term is the English translation (Hassan and Hassan 1983) of Lyotard's 1979 métarécits (l'incrédulité à l'égard des métarécits).
Examples of metanarratives
There is only one metanarrative as defined by Lyotard. Modernists and philosophers address the problem by telling a story—the story of progress through universal human reason, 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 in his work, The Postmodern Condition (1979). In this text, Lyotard refers to what he describes as the postmodern condition, which he characterized as increasing skepticism toward the totalizing nature of metanarratives and their reliance on some form of "transcendent and universal truth":
- "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements—narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on [...] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?"--Jean-François Lyotard
Lyotard and many other poststructuralist thinkers have viewed 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 structures 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 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. 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's analysis of the postmodern condition has been criticized as being internally inconsistent. For example, thinkers like Alex Callinicos and Jürgen Habermas 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", "knowledge", "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, 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 postmodernism using totalizing criticisms of a supposed a priori of postmodernism, assuming that postmodernism follows the linear categorical logic of modernism, 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.
- Local knowledge
- New historicism
- Thick description
- World view
- Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: 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.