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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 unrealized) master idea.[1][2][3]

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.[4]

Poststructuralist skepticism toward metanarratives[edit]

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":[5]

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)[6] 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.[7] Second, as well as ignoring the heterogeneity or variety of human existence, metanarratives are created and reinforced by power structures and are therefore untrustworthy.[citation needed]

Replacing grand, universal narratives with small, local narratives[edit]

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.[8] Borrowing from the works of Wittgenstein and his theory of the "models of discourse",[9] Lyotard constructs his vision of a progressive politics, grounded in the cohabitation of a whole range of diverse and always locally legitimated language-games.[10]

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"[11] rather than for grand, all-encompassing theories.

Narratology and communication[edit]

According to John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, a metanarrative "is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience"[12] - 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,[13] pointing thereby to a possible revision of the social code.[14]

In communication and strategic communication, a master narrative (or metanarrative) is a "transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture."[15] 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."[15]

The Consortium for Strategic Communication also maintains a website on master narratives.[16]

Criticism of Lyotard[edit]

It is unclear whether Lyotard is describing a global condition - skepticism towards metanarratives in postmodernity - or prescribing such skepticism - 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.[17]

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.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentzi eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 186
  2. ^ R. Appignanesi/C. Garratt, Postmodernism for Beginners (1995) p. 102-3
  3. ^ Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children (1992) p. 29
  4. ^ Childers p. 166-7
  5. ^ Lyotard, Jean-François. Introduction:The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge," 1979: xxiv-xxv.
  6. ^ G. Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2007) p. 36
  7. ^ C. Nouvet et al eds., Minima Moralia (2007) p. xii-iv
  8. ^ Nouvet, p. xvi
  9. ^ Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, Routledge, 1995, p124. ISBN 0-415-06011-7
  10. ^ Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend (1988) p. 151-161
  11. ^ Michael A. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism, and Neoliberalism: Between Theory and Politics, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p7. ISBN 0-7425-0987-7
  12. ^ Stephens, John and Robyn McCallum. (1998). Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature. ISBN 0-8153-1298-9.
  13. ^ J. W. Bertens/D. Fokkema, International Postmodernism (1997) p. 186
  14. ^ E. D. Ermath, Sequel to History (1992) p. 156
  15. ^ a b Halverson, Jeffry R., H.L. Goodall Jr. and Steven R. Corman. Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. p. 14
  16. ^
  17. ^ Metanarratives
  18. ^ J. W. Bertens/D. Fokkema, International Postmodernism (1997) p. 94

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)

External links[edit]

A Postmodern Strategy: Language Games