I have the feeling the title of this post might give you the impression that I have a formula to resolve the many ailments our world is suffering from today. That’s not the sentiment I want to convey, far from it. In fact, it would be extremely presumptuous and utterly unrealistic for me to even hint at any solutions. But as the video below stresses, I believe we now have the power of technology to help us question the paradigm we live in, create a new shared proposition and put it into action. The series “If this system doesn’t work, what would? is my grain of sand.
What I’m about to say is nothing new but I think it’s gained prominence with today’s struggle and it needs to be simplified and stressed.
But first, what do I mean when I say that today’s metanarratives need to be replaced?
What is a metanarrative?
The term meta (about) narrative (story) was first coined by French philosopher and postmodernist writer Jean-François Lyotard in his famous work La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge) (1979). Lyotard explained metanarratives (or ‘grand narratives’) as “large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom”.
In a nutshell, metanarratives are fictional constructs used to explain everything that happens in a society. A grand narrative helps people feel safe because it helps them comprehend the world through the view of a single cohesive story with a beginning, middle and happy end. They save the world from the meaningless cycle of birth and death, giving life a magnificent and majestic purpose beyond itself that somehow redeems it from its supposed worthlessness. The more people believe their metanarrative the more they try to embellish, support and justify it and all sorts of means are used to legitimate the very metanarrative that makes sense of their lives – education to ideology, politics, myths (even lies) etc.. Once they are captured by that metanarrative, they are capable of rationalising just about anything and everything within it. Soon, all facts seem to bolster one’s assumptions because the facts that matter are dictated by the narrative. Adn then, each generation, reinterprets these narratives and their symbols (flags, anthems, icons) even as each generation is also constituted by these received stories. The ideas and myths of the metanarrative are codified over and over again and the ideology surrounding it reinforced ad nauseum.
What is today’s overarching metanarrative?
Look no further than the recently held grandiose opening of the 2012 London Olympics. As spectacular and theatrical as it was (and I did appreciate the effort and imagination that went into it), I couldn’t help but feeling the world seemed to have gathered to celebrate the Industrial Revolution, an alienated workforce and a polluted environment.
That’s exactly what the master narrative today is – free market capitalism and liberal progress (capital, money and profit) derived precisely from the principles of limitless growth, individualism, and the self-made man. Capitalism is based upon economic growth (no growth equals crisis) and upon the premise that workers are to be paid less than the value of the goods so that manufacturers can stay ahead of their competition.Those who have been fortunate enough to find the keys to such progress take it upon them to share this narrative and enlightened others.
The grand narrative of Western civilisation tells a lineal story of unbroken liberal progress from poverty and superstition to prosperity and the rule of reason. It’s a history of reason, democracy, and economic growth where progress is considered to be real, objectively definable, and universally desirable.
The grand narrative of Western civilisation provided a cultural and historical basis for a liberal consensus about the merits and potential of the West that was unapologetically rationalist, progressive, and confident of the benefits of science and industry. It was meant to foster excellence in education, common ground in politics, and harmonious assimilation in society.
The grand Western narrative assumed what it set out to explain: that the West existed, and that it was good and that it needed to be told and imposed upon others.
Those are the very basis of a metanarrative that is now struggling to justify itself and adapting to the changes imposed by globalisation in order to keep its head above water.
But should we let it?
It’s not hard to guess my answer to that question. I think it’s definitely time to allow for new narratives ( I personally don’t think we need another metanarrative, but many smaller, peacefully intersecting stories). Until recently, free market capitalism and its supporting liberalist and neoclassical stories have been embraced as a metanarrative to the exclusion of other perspectives which offer us a much better chance to dig out of the mess we’ve created. It has been told with such absolute certainty that we have always thought we are justified in dominating anyone who disagrees with us. But narrow interpretations of those ideas has brought the world’s economy, it’s environment, and the overall well-being of most of its citizens to the edge of a cliff.
We now need to take away the privileges the narrator has granted himself.
Time for a paradigm shift – Time for “Petit recits”
As Lyotard argued himself, since we have now gained the capacity to question that this metanarrative can no longer adequately represent us all, we are in the position to explore the diversity offered by micronarratives, localised narratives or “Petit recits” (Post-modern condition, 1979:60). “Petit récits” are modest narratives that have a limited validity in place and time. While grand narratives are solid and rigid, ‘petit récits’ are adaptable, evolving, progressive, fluid and are endowed with the ability to move towards disparate directions. While mixing together, they produce new meanings, which are accompanied by a wide range of possible interpretations peacefully interacting in a time-space (non-lineal) continuum.
The strength shown by the current wave of citizen/netizen revolts is evident. Only last week a group of Greek citizens took Eurozone and IFM leaders to the International Criminal Court and accused them of social and economic genocide, making use of institutions created by the grand narrative itself to oppose its negative effects on the suffering Greece population. In a way, we are slowly proving Noam Chomsky wrong (and I think he will be happy to be proven wrong) when he said that “the general population doesn’t know what’s happening and doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know”. Although we might not even comprehend how far the metanarrative reaches into our lives, I believe we are slowly waking up, questioning the metanarrative and harassing both state, monopolies and capital.
It’s time to be inventive and work from a tabula rasa that allows for a smaller narratives to be tested. We need to be flexible, innovative, peaceful, cooperative, recognising that a metanarrative is a fictional tale that we have come to belive and abide by and that can easily be replaced by other, more fitting versions before it’s too late.