Metanarrative or grand narrative or mater narrative is a term developed by Jean-François Lyotard to mean a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values.
In this context, the narrative is a story that functions to legitimize power, authority, and social customs. A grand narrative or metanarrative is one that claims to explain various events in history, gives meaning by connecting disperse events and phenomena by appealing to some kind of universal knowledge or schema. The term grand narratives can be applied to a wide range of thoughts which includes Marxism, religious doctrines, belief in progress, universal reason, and others.
The concept was criticized by Jean-François Lyotard in his work, The Postmodern Condition: 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 of "metanarratives" or "grand narratives."
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 a narrative is a story. Therefore, a metanarrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other 'little stories' within totalizing a schema.
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) 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 originally written as a report to the Conseil des universités du Québec. The book introduced the term 'postmodernism', which was previously only used by art critics, in philosophy with the following quotation: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives".
Among the metanarratives are reductionism and teleological notions of human history such as those of the Enlightenment and Marxism. These have become untenable, according to Lyotard, by technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media and computer science. Techniques such as artificial intelligence and machine translation show a shift to linguistic and symbolic production as central elements of the postindustrial economy and the related postmodern culture, which had risen at the end of the 1950s after the reconstruction of western Europe. The result is a plurality of language-games (a term coined by Wittgenstein), without any overarching structure. Modern science thus destroys its own metanarrative.
In the book, Lyotard professes a preference for this plurality of small narratives that compete with each other, replacing the totalitarianism of grand narratives. For this reason, The Postmodern Condition has often been interpreted as an excuse for unbounded relativism, which for many has become a hallmark of postmodern thought.
The Postmodern Condition was written as a report on the influence of technology on the notion of knowledge in exact sciences, commissioned by the Québec government. Lyotard later admitted that he had a 'less than limited' knowledge of the science he was to write about, and to compensate for this knowledge, he 'made stories up' and referred to a number of books that he hadn't actually read. In retrospect, he called it 'a parody' and 'simply the worst of all my books'. Despite this, and much to Lyotard's regret, it came to be seen as his most important piece of writing.
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-Francois Lyotard
Lyotard and other postmodernists take a critical or skeptical stance towards metanarrative in which they include a variety of thoughts from other religious doctrines to Marxism, Fredudianism, and others.
According to the advocates of postmodernism, metanarratives have lost their power to convince stories that are told in order to legitimize 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.
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 criticize universal rules but postulate that postmodernity contains a universal skepticism toward metanarratives, and so 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. Postmodernism is an anti-theory, but uses theoretical tools to make its case. The significance of this contradiction, however, is of course also open to interpretation.
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