The Stories We Live By:

In today’s post, I am inspired by the idea of Metanarratives from the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard’s most famous work is The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He presented the term “postmodern” in this book. He defined postmodern as:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.

A metanarrative or a grand narrative is a larger scale narrative that a group of people hold on to, to make sense of how the world is progressing around them. There is a teleological aspect to it such that the “progression” of the society can be explained. Leotard viewed this as a grand narrative of modernity, one where the society is progressing towards a future where all our problems are solved and where we all live happily ever after. The postmodern view distrusts any such grand narratives. The grand narrative is how we find meaning in the world around us.

The New World Encyclopedia defines metanarratives as follows:

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.

Perhaps, it is because the world has grown closer together and more exposed to the different cultures that the postmodernists believe that we have lost faith in the grand narratives. Instead of grand narratives, what we have are localized small narratives that are often intertwined. Lyotard uses the Wittgenstein’s language games to explain this. Wittgenstein noted that the meaning of a word is in how we use the word. The words themselves are invariant; their meanings are not. The words are not fixed labels of things, but something we come together to agree upon while engaged in language games. As Simon Malpas notes:

 Like normal games, there are a variety of language games that may not always have rules in common. For example, in chess there are rules that allow us to move the pieces in certain ways, set out our objectives for victory and make certain moves illegal. In the same way, in science certain types of statement can be made about the world and certain aims and rules are involved in scientific enquiry and experimentation. The success or failure of a given statement is thus determined by how well it works within the rules of the language game in which it occurs.

Located in a multiplicity of language games that no longer follow a single metanarrative, an individual’s identity becomes dispersed… As language games are linked to identity, Lyotard argues that the wider range of different language games that are considered legitimate within society, the more open and pluralist that society can become. The main threat facing postmodern society is the reduction of knowledge to a single system whose only criterion is efficiency… Once the grand narratives have fallen away, we are left only with the diverse range of language games, and the aim of postmodern criticism should be to do justice to them by allowing them to be heard in their own terms.

It is easy to be mesmerized by a grand narrative. This could be a political slogan about making a country great again. It could also be the belief that the whole is always greater than sum of its parts. We might be told that we should be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the whole. These grand narratives often lack the variety to sustain itself. The idea of the whole being greater than some of its parts is often taught in Systems Thinking. This posits the view that there is indeed an objective whole. As David M. Boje notes, a system is a fiction of the whole. The most important piece that is often ignored is the question – to whom? All systems are mental constructs that an observer or a group of observer constructs. The keyword here is the observer. The grand narrative that “the whole is greater” is based on an observer. This does not mean that another observer will see the system identically. To a patient, the healthcare system has specific needs such as affordable healthcare and this may be entirely different than the CEO managing a hospital. If we are able to answer the following questions, then we might be able to better understand the “whole” – who does the summation? From whose perspective is the whole and parts determined? For whose purpose?

Lyotard noted that no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.

The social subject itself seems to dissolve in the dissemination of language games. The social bond is linguistic, but is not woven with a single thread. It is a fabric formed by the intersection of at least two (and in reality an indeterminate number) of language games, obeying different rules.

One single grand narrative cannot explain away the multitude of human experiences. Our role as a systems thinker is to welcome the multiple local narratives and engage in the different language games. We should challenge the rules that govern images and narratives. We should understand that the different language games may not always work together. We should welcome pluralism – the idea that multiple perspectives may be equally meaningful and valid.

It may be difficult at first to digest the postmodernist ideas. The realization that there is no singular objective reality may not be easy to accept. This realization however makes us more acceptable to welcome other perspectives of the world, the social realm. Socrates was declared wise by the oracle of Delphi because one thing Socrates knew was that he did not know anything. This type of self-reflection is possible when we give upon the metanarrative of an objective knowledge.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

A podcast version of this post is available here – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Stories-We-Live-By-e11uctl

In case you missed it, my last post was Hermeneutics in Systems Thinking: