A metanarrative in critical theory and particularly in postmodernism is a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience or knowledge, which offers a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealised) master idea.
The term was brought into prominence by Jean-François Lyotard in 1984, with his claim that the postmodern was characterised precisely by a mistrust of the grand narratives (Progress, Enlightenment emancipation, Marxism) that had formed an essential part of modernity.
Poststructuralist skepticism toward metanarratives
In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Lyotard highlights the increasing skepticism of the postmodern condition toward the totalizing nature of metanarratives and their reliance on some form of "transcendent and universal truth":
Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] 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[...] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?
Lyotard and other poststructuralist thinkers (like Foucault) view this as a broadly positive development for a number of reasons. First, attempts to construct grand theories tend to unduly dismiss the naturally existing chaos and disorder of the universe, the power of the individual event. Second, as well as ignoring the heterogeneity or variety of human existence, metanarratives are created and reinforced by power structures and are therefore untrustworthy.
Replacing grand, universal narratives with small, local narratives
Lyotard proposed that metanarratives should give way to petits récits, or more modest and "localized" narratives, which can 'throw off' the grand narrative by bringing into focus the singular event. Borrowing from the works of Wittgenstein and his theory of the "models of discourse", Lyotard constructs his vision of a progressive politics, 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 on the diversity of human experience. They argue for the existence of a "multiplicity of theoretical standpoints" rather for than grand, all-encompassing theories.
Narratology and communication
According to John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, a metanarrative "is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience" - a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other "little stories" within conceptual models that make the stories into a whole. Postmodern narratives will often deliberately disturb the formulaic expectations such cultural codes provide, pointing thereby to a possible revision of the social code.
In communication and strategic communication, a master narrative (or metanarrative) is a "transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture." A master narrative is therefore a particular type of narrative, which is defined as a "coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that share a common rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by establishing audience expectations according to the known trajectories of its literary and rhetorical form."
Criticism of Lyotard
It is unclear whether Lyotard is describing a global condition - scepticism towards metanarratives in postmodernity - or prescribing such scepticism - his critics pointing out the awkward fact for a descriptive viewpoint that clearly meta-narratives continue to play a major role in the current (postmodern) world.
Lyotard himself has ironically spoken of "the great narrative of the end of great narratives", a point taken up against him by such thinkers as Alex Callinicos and Jürgen Habermas, who argue that Lyotard's universal skepticism toward metanarratives is itself a contemporary metanarrative, and thus self-refuting.
Critics have also argued that, in so far as one of Lyotard's targets was Science, he was mistaken in thinking science relies on a grand narrative for social and epistemic validation, rather than upon the accumulation of many lesser narrative successes.
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- R. Appignanesi/C. Garratt, Postmodernism for Beginners (1995) p. 102-3
- Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children (1992) p. 29
- Childers p. 166-7
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- G. Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2007) p. 36
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- Nouvet, p. xvi
- Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, Routledge, 1995, p124. ISBN 0-415-06011-7
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- Michael A. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism, and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p7. ISBN 0-7425-0987-7
- Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum. (1998). Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature. ISBN 0-8153-1298-9.
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- J. W. Bertens/D. Fokkema, International Postmodernism (1997) p. 94
- 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.
- David Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Indiana UP 1986)
- G. Bennington, Lyotard: Writing the Event (1988)