In critical theory, and particularly postmodernism, a metanarrative is a grand overarching account, or all-encompassing story, which is thought to give order to the historical record. The term is best known for its use by Jean-François Lyotard in the following quotation: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives" (1984). By this, Lyotard meant that the postmodern condition is characterized by an increasingly widespread skepticism toward metanarratives, such as the unique status of the individual, the boundedness of information, and the march of progress, that had given order and meaning to Western thought during modernity.
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The meaning of metanarrative
A metanarrative can include any grand, all-encompassing story, classic text, or archetypal account of the historical record. They can also provide a framework upon which an individual's own experiences and thoughts may be ordered. These grand, all-encompassing stories are typically characterised by some form of 'transcendent and universal truth' in addition to an evolutionary tale of human existence (a story with a beginning, middle and an end). The majority of metanarratives tend to be relatively optimistic in their visions for human kind, some verge on utopian, but different schools of thought offer very differing accounts.
For example, many Christians believe human existence is inherently sinful though capable of redemption and eternal peace in heaven. For the Enlightenment theorists (the philosophes) rational thought allied to scientific reasoning will lead toward an inevitable progression for mankind. And for the Marxist human existence is alienated from its species being though capable of realising its full potential through collective, democratic organisation. Likewise a blind faith in the free market and trickle down effect is open to metanarrative interpretations, though not as blatantly utopian as others.
Modern skepticism toward metanarratives
According to Jean-François Lyotard, a defining condition of postmodernity is a widespread skepticism or "incredulity" toward metanarratives (1984). 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. '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
In the "postmodern era" 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 'petit récits', or more modest and "localised" narratives. Borrowing from the works of Wittgenstein and his theory of the "models of discourse" Lyotard constructs his vision of a progressive politics. He envisages a progressive politics that is ground 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 postmodernism a metanarrative?
Lyotard's analysis of the postmodern condition has been criticized as being circular. For example, modernist 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. If we are skeptical of universal authorities such as "truth", "knowledge", "right", or "wrong", how can we believe in the "truth" that the power of metanarratives is being undermined? Perhaps postmodernists, like Lyotard, are not offering us a utopian 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. Postmodernism is an anti-theory, but uses theoretical tools to make its case.
- 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.
- Hope, K. W., "Film & Meta-narrative" in Diss. Abstr. Internat. 36 4814/1 (1976).
- Prince, Gerald, Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative (1982). Kelly Muensterman.