What Is a Metanarrative?

What Is a Metanarrative?

What is a metanarrative and why should we be sceptical toward them? A significant influential philosopher whose work focused on the postmodern condition was Jean Francois Lyotard. As Jean-Francois Lyotard explains in his book ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’ (1984) he is concerned with ‘the condition of knowledge in highly developed societies’ (Lyotard, 1979). For the purpose of discussions regarding Lyotard, it is prudent to note that the use of the term “postmodernism” is not to be understood as a historical era following the modern period.

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In ‘The Postmodern Condition’ Lyotard insists that the postmodern occurs within the modern period as “incredulity toward meta-narratives” (Lyotard, 1979). The meaning of a metanarrative (or grand narrative) is unique to Lyotard’s theory. He defines it to mean a narrative with a legitimating function and states that metanarratives themselves require no further justification. In sociology, the concept of a meta-narrative is sometimes referred to as ‘high level theory’. In postmodern philosophy, a meta-narrative is an untold story that unifies and totalises the world, and that justifies a culture’s power structures.

Sociological perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism are all examples of what post-modernists call metanarratives precisely because they attempt to account for all aspects of a society in terms of the perspective and the various theories it proposes. According to Lyotard, the sciences and late twentieth-century societies were in the middle of a legitimation crisis because of an inability to provide a justification in the form of a ‘primary explanation of the relations between science, technology, and society’ (Nola, R. , Irzik, G. , 2002).

He reveals how knowledge has, up until the end of the 1950’s been legitimated by the metanarratives of science and he examines developments of knowledge since the end of World War II, insisting that this has led to the discrediting of the Enlightenment narrative of emancipation and progress. Lyotard makes a distinction between scientific knowledge and non-scientific narrative, and holds that because science has no ‘metalegitimation’ it must resort to narrative for that legitimation. Since both narrative and scientific knowledge have a common foundation of legitimation in narrative, they are equally valid.

Lyotard goes on to make clear that “what legitimates knowledge in the postmodern condition is how well it performs, or enables a person to perform, in particular roles. ” (Halbert, Website). Thus legitimation of knowledge is dependent upon the usefulness of that said knowledge. The problem for Lyotard is that knowledge is being undermined within contemporary society through the developments of technology and science. For example, the enlightenment has highlighted the importance of freedom within our society.

Laws have been developed to take into account all citizens freedoms, and responsibility lies with the state. However Lyotard believes that the metanarrative of the enlightenment has been altered through capitalism and are now reinforced by power structures within society who are interested in keeping social control and order over individuals. Metanarratives claim to be the ultimate truth, but Lyotard believes that there is no legitimising them which takes away from its validity. Lyotard claims that the appropriate response to the problem of legitimation in a society marked by the postmodern condition is “paralogy. In the practice of paralogy, the goal of producing a primary legitimation narrative is replaced by an attempt to increase the possible language moves in a particular language game. Hence, paralogy champions the diversity of discourse practices by prohibiting the power of a single discourse over all others. The main goal according to Lyotard, is to protect the diversity of discourse and practice within the socio-political world, in which there is the continuous threat of one social entity (individual persons or cultures) being overpowered by another.

Lyotard’s thinking continues to be a powerful, cautionary note for the relations between science, technology, and ethics. Lyotard suggests that in a world which is both increasingly socially and culturally uneven and in which the irrationality of unchecked scientific reason was plainly evident, modernity’s metanarratives become exhausted. In conclusion, Lyotard stresses that postmodernism is not just a rejection of Enlightenment; it is the questioning of the very idea that one overarching way of explaining the whole world is even possible or desirable.

Instead there are many ways to view the world. There are many possible perspectives and no one world view can claim to have final or over-ruling word over others. Lyotard and many other poststructuralist thinkers argue that metanarratives tend to dismiss the naturally existing chaos and disorder of the universe and that they are created and reinforced by power structures as mentioned previously. Therefore metanarratives according to Lyotard cannot be trusted.

Metanarratives are also seen to embody unacceptable views of historical development, in terms of progress towards a specific goal in a world where the diverse passions of human beings will always make this specific goal not so specific and near impossible to achieve. Lyotard’s criticism of metanarratives has been criticised in turn by Jurgen Habermas. Habermas argues that Lyotard’s description of the postmodern world as containing “incredulity toward metanarratives” could be seen as a metanarrative in itself. Habermas says that Lyotards theory contains a universal scepticism that is in itself a contemporary metanarrative.

With that said, it can be argued that Lyotard’s theory is a criticism of itself. Bibliography * Halbert, M. , ‘Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition’, Performativity, Cultural Capital and the Internet ;http://userwww. service. emory. edu/~mhalber/Research/Paper/pcilyotard. html; * Lyotard, J-F. , (1979), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, * Nola, R. ; Irzik, G. , (2002), ‘Incredulity towards Lyotard: a critique of a postmodernist account of Science and Knowledge’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 34 (2003) 391–421.


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