Saturday, November 08, 2008

On "Grand Narratives"

Postmodernism is a standpoint of universal skepticism against "metanarratives" or "grand narratives"--universalizing stories that purport to encompass and illuminate every non-universal story throughout time and geography. Of course, it takes very little cleverness to see the "metanarrative" inside of postmodernism itself. Yet there is still value in the postmodernist point. If nothing else, we now have a language about "metanarratives", so that even if we cannot help but to create and live by one or another metanarrative, we can now, at least, more clearly see them for what they are, ask questions that were not asked before, and ascertain the relative value, the ultimacy, the adequacy, and the truth of metanarratives.

Of course, it is impossible to step "outside of" all metanarratives and so look at them like so many billiard balls on a table. The ones to proclaim that they have done so are still captive of a naivette that needs a healthy dose of postmodernism before they can become helpful dialogue partners. No claim, no matter how loudly, to "reason", to "common sense", to "logic" can yet presume to hold all of the cards, to know all the outcomes, to determine all points of view with a cold, exposing light. Yes, a person may be a general of his own metanarrative, and so will easily win followers who were already captivated by the same. But general and soldiers alike may, without a certain openness and a certain prodding, be imprisoned by a small metanarrative and never see the light of a narrative which is more meta than their own.

And that's the key. We might regard "metanarratives" as being like billiard balls on a table, equally insufficient, equally worthy of skepticism. But through some mystery of understanding, we can see the table as meta to the balls; the pub as meta to the table(s); the district as meta to the pub(s). And perhaps we are unable to arrive at a metanarrative which is actually ultimate--for we always arrive at the same point, namely, that there is something meta to our meta-izing; and there may be something meta even to that.

From this juncture we can go in (at least) two directions. First we may ask what is common to minds such that they, in common with one-another, can recognize common relationships of "meta"--like, for example, the popular postmodernist project itself, by which many people have come to see skepticism as meta to the various available metanarratives. That is the speculative road. Second, we may ask: by what process does the mind change, perhaps not to a belief contradicting a previous belief, but toward a narrative which is more meta than a previous narrative? Or how can a mind be deceived, and so be confused into believing a less meta narrative to be the more? As if a billiards player were to become more consumed by the glimmer of a single ball than the game, or by the game than by the pub and the relationships that constitute the possibility of the game? A question we will discover on the way is: what is the relationship between a metanarrative and its subordinate narratives? This is the practical road.

Both roads are ultimately necessary. The first road needs to be followed if we are to fortify the project against radical skepticism and relativism. Radical relativism is a popular cognitive option in the face of superficially irreconcilable differences of opinion; yet it appears to be falsified by the phenomenon of shared understandings--even if these understandings are never 100%universal. One might argue that shared understandings can be explained away by a theory of memes that treats beliefs as independent, self-reproducing organisms with no link to a yet-elusive "objectivity". Yet this theory presupposes (rather than observes) the origin of shared understandings. It seems to be falsified by the immanent phenomenon of non-constructed otherness. The postmodernist may argue that there is no such thing as non-constructed otherness--for all otherness, even if it is "natural", is reconstructed in our minds by language. But this is a mistake. There is no non-constructed understanding. But even if we accept that language structures all understanding, this presupposes that there is an other to be structured.

The second road--the concrete road--is perhaps the more interesting of the two, because here we can begin to survey the history of ideas, not as an infinite series of discrete units of belief, but as vast collectives, associations, and above all, as hierarchies of metanarratives and subnarratives.

I will not lie--I labor under a metanarrative myself. It is subnarrative to my Catholic faith, and it goes something like this: Very early in human history, the seeds of two primordial metanarratives and grown and sprouted "children", and philosophy has ever since been a dialogue, or a battle, between subnarratives variously pledging their alleigance to one or the other unspoken, implicit, metanarrative. It sounds almost Manichean, I admit, but this is the thread I would like to follow to its conclusion.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

"Second, we may ask: by what process does the mind change, perhaps not to a belief contradicting a previous belief, but toward a narrative which is more meta than a previous narrative? Or how can a mind be deceived, and so be confused into believing a less meta narrative to be the more?"

Matthew 15:14.

The only way I can reconcile this bit is to accept that, God's constant prodding of every soul doesn't always yield a saved soul only because some of us out and out refuse to listen.

Geez Louise, it must be tiring having to knit repairs in and to cast such a wide net! No? It would be for me, that's why I choose to cast a smaller one.

You are primed for apologetics.