Death of the Metanarrative

Until I recently read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge I never quite understood why Moderns accused Post-moderns of being anti-science. I’d heard Jordan Peterson complaining, and I’d read forum and blog posts with the same attacks.

As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.

To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.

The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.

We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.

The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.

I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.

Lego Blocks

In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.

8 thoughts on “Death of the Metanarrative

  1. What do you mean by rejecting the notion of objective truth? Is it because all we have is maps, and there is no one who sees the territory in its totality?

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    1. Yes, Julian. and…

      Given that we can only interact with ‘reality’ (or referents) through our senses (or technological proxies), and these have limitations and (as Descartes noted) can be deceived (as well as have interference through cognitive biases), we cannot access Truth. This is not to say that the referent does not exist, but any interaction with it is interpretive.

      The ‘and’ extension is more fundamental. Let’s say there is some referent object we label ‘tree’ in English. Irrespective of whether our perception of this ‘tree’ object converges, there is no truth value to it. Without getting into a structural discussion, the best we can get is the ‘fact’ of the tree and not the ‘truth’ of the tree.

      In addition to this, there is the capital-T version of Truth, which is typically reserved for some objective truth. The problem here is that even if there were some Objective Truth, there would be no way to verify or validate that it is indeed the ‘real’ Truth. The best we have is to attempt to legitimise Truth through consensus, but an opinion poll is hardly the best arbiter of truth. This is where language games enter, and this is the basis for my claim that there is no ascertainable truth beyond rhetoric.

      A lot of the confusion comes through the lack of specificity in language, so idiomatically we apply ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ as loose synonyms: We might inquire, ‘Is it true that is a tree?’ but we are really asking, ‘Is it a fact that is a tree?’ Perhaps, more precisely, ‘Is it an accepted fact that is a tree?’ And this is where we get into a place where facts are just constructs of human language, but that’s a story for another day.

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      1. Fascinating, I’ve been thinking of the importance of consensus as the arbiter of “truth” if there is no “objective truth.”

        The distinction you make between “fact” and “truth” is a interesting one. The objection I can hear the modernist make is that regardless of our ability to know the truth, there is still some “truth” out there to be known, there is a reality we are trying to get a grip on. Why can’t the modernist just say, well, we may be biased and limited, but using our tools for getting at reality is the best shot we have at getting to grips with reality. Truth thus conceived is more like a ideal you strive towards than something you can immediately comprehend.

        What would you say to the common rejoinder against PMism that surely you must think that it is true that there is no objective truth? Is this just trivially true?

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  2. To me, the issue is trivial when it comes to trees and objects in the world. It becomes more troublesome when we create cultural narratives as if they were based on some fundamental truth. Common whipping boys (girls?) are sexual orientation and gender? Allow me to ramble on with an example.

    To proponents of binary genders—who by and large cannot seem to grasp the distinction between sex and gender—primary biological sex characteristics are the arbiters of one’s sex and therefore of one’s gender. To this cohort, gender is not an expression of identity, it is a perfect synonym for sex (the noun not the verb). That some dictionaries identify sex as a legitimate synonym doesn’t help matters. This isn’t the biggest obstacle, because one could always invent a new word to reinforce the distinction. In any case, this ends up being a taxonomical decision where a person with a penis is classified as ‘male’ and one with a vagina ends up in the ‘female’ bucket. (I’ll not go down the rabbit holes of Beauvoir or Derrida.)

    Is it a fact that a person with a penis is male? It is if I accept this crude taxonomy. But what if I choose another genetic test instead? Ignoring for the purpose of simplification, could one conceive of a test where a person with a penis might not pass the maleness test? Yes. Could one conceive of a test where they establish some number of dimensions wherein each of these dimensions supports a dichotomy between male and female? Say there are 10 such dimensions? Could we find that a penis-bearing person only scores male on 8 of 10 of these? Would this person be 80 per cent male, or do we apply rounding rules? In this case, do we round up to the nearest binary value? Now imagine, these dimensions each have some number of subdivision. Imagine the atom. Imagine neutrons, protons, and electrons. Now image quarks? My point is this taxonomical classification is arbitrary.

    What, then, about sexual orientation. Regarding gender, there is one and only one time I am concerned with someone’s sexual orientation, and that’s when I am deciding to have sex with that person. I am a bit old fashioned, so as a penis-bearing person, I don’t happen to be much interested sexually in other penis-bearing persons. Whether I was born this way, otherwise conditioned, or both is of little consequence. In the end, it’s my preference. Of course, I presume the other partner in the scenario is making a similar calculus.

    Now, I might be upset to find that person doesn’t favour penises, and I suppose I may lash out, ‘How dare you not prefer penises in a situation where I want you to!’ One of my favourite (stupid) comments is when women react to some celebrity being gay with the comment, ‘What a waste’, as if that celebrity would otherwise be knocking down your door. It’s about as dim as the gay person convincing himself that there may be a chance.

    In any case, the conflict arises when someone decides that there is a TRUE way to orient and all other ways are FALSE or otherwise invalid. Generally, I have not noticed that these people are very accepting of a taxonomical defence. I’ve got Christian friends who admonish that ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’. My bad. I missed that part.

    And it goes deeper. If a CIS-male undergoes sex reassignment surgery, this penis rule is given a special case: you have to have been born with a penis or else it doesn’t count. I’ve actually heard arguments made that claimed that a person would identify a, say, female just to be able to access a female restroom—undoubtedly for some nefarious purposes. On a talk radio programme some 20+ years ago on the topic of unisex restrooms, a woman called in and argued how uncomfortable she would be knowing that ‘some guys would be there just to hear her tinkle’. Seriously. So we base access to restrooms on some immature notion of a woman who has issues. This is not to say that there aren’t people who might have the exact intent she describes, but then again, so what?

    So, this purported ‘truth’ of binary gender then enters public discourse and manifests in legislation proclaiming sex-exclusive public restrooms, for example. Not too long ago in the US, a male could not be sexually harassed. There were no statutes forbidding it.

    Returning to earth…

    As to ‘Why can’t the modernist just say: well, we may be biased and limited, but using our tools for getting at reality is the best shot we have at getting to grips with reality’. The first part of the phrase is very common. Most modernists understand that there is much that they don’t know (though I’d assert that their confidence exceeds what it should). As I’ve said, in the realm of science and physics, this is probably good enough, though it might be delusional to presume one can actually reach reality. I’d like to think it is more of an asymptotic function.

    But the problem is less in the sciences than in culture. Society and human behaviour do not fall within the confines of science. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘soft sciences’, but this is only an attempt to legitimise them onboard the science bandwagon. Behaviour is a chaotic—a dynamic system. Experiments are not repeatable, and an experiment in rural Spain would be expected to yield different results to urban France. Moreover, an experience in urban France would not likely be repeatable ten years later or even simultaneously given a different cohort.

    Humans have a need to categorise things. I’d call this an outcome of evolutionary pressure, as these people have survived thus far. But people also over-apply this categorisation and often misclassify items for one reason or another. Case in point, say I give you some random assortment of 100 books to 100 different people operating independently and without communication. What do you suppose would be the probability of having any or all of these organise the books identically? A person may choose to sort by height or weight or thickness or genre or topic or alphabetically by author or title. What if we instructed them to at least categorise by some binary, say, fiction versus non-fiction? Where would a historical novel go? What if it was 90 per cent true? What if a biography had been to be 10 per cent fabricated? We’ve returned to a fundamental problem with taxonomies.

    Truth is an ideal toward which you stride. This is the purpose of the narrative and metanarrative. The issue is that we can’t know that we are driving toward the same truth. Vast numbers of pre-nineteenth century people believed that slavery was just and moral. That was their perceived truth. In 100 or 1,000 years, how many of our truths will elicit sighs and groans because they don’t comply with their new truths? And I’m not talking about the things you happen to feel at the moment that are unjust—perhaps inaction on climate change, which some people already feel is unconscionable. I’m talking about things along the lines of ‘How could people have believed in individual freedoms?’ or ‘How could people divide themselves into countries and nations?’ or ‘How could people not understand that there is no such thing as race?’ and on and on.

    Looking back, I notice I’ve typed a lot of words…

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  3. You certainly did type a lot of words, I won’t be able to respond to it all. 🙂 I appreciate you elaborating your thoughts in your recent blog post, I will take a deeper look at that.

    I`d like to comment on one part of your response, which I think is near the heart of your project. You write:

    Humans have a need to categorise things. I’d call this an outcome of evolutionary pressure, as these people have survived thus far. But people also over-apply this categorisation and often misclassify items for one reason or another.

    I have been reading “The metaphysical Club,” a book on the rise of American Pragmatism after the civil war. One striking thing is how wedded pragmatism is to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. It seems to me, and you probably know more about this than me, that Postmodernism is itself a reaction to, or a recognition of the what that theory entails. Let me quote from the book and you’ll see the connection:

    “Once our attention is redirected to the individual, we need another way of making generalizations. We are no longer interested in the confromity of an individual to an ideal type; we are now interested in the relation of an individual to other individuals with which it interacts. To generalize about groups of interacting individuals, we need to drop the language of types and essences, which is PRESCRIPTIVE (telling us what all finches SHOULD be), and adopt the language of stats and probability which is PREDICTIVE (telling us what the average finch, under specified conditions is likely to do) Relations will be more important than categories; functions, which are variable, will be more important than purposes, which are fixed in advance; transitions will be more important than boundaries; sequences will be more important than hierarchies.”

    I don’t know if you can trace the historical link, but it seems to line up to me. This leads me to a question I have for you. You write: “Truth is an ideal toward which you stride. This is the purpose of the narrative and meta narrative.” It seems to me that there is some sort of a goal embedded within this entire project: that of undermining boundaries. There seems to be a straight line between your postmodernism and the moral stands you take regarding gender, race, nationalism, and so on. Pmism dismisses the notion that boundaries (such as those between genders or those between nations) are platonic ideals, but rather holds them to be are fluid and socially constructed: your moral positions are clear reflections of this.

    I can hear you saying that you’re really not making moral claims, but are just pointing out that the boundaries which we construct around gender, race, nationality, whatever you want to bring up, are more or less arbitrary. Maybe that is the case, but the claim that they are arbitrary (this is a strong word, I don’t think you would go as far as to say they are arbitrary, but lets not quibble over this) certainty gives you something to strive towards and opponents- those who don’t believe these boundaries are arbitrary- to battle against.

    What do you think?

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  4. Thanks, Julian,

    I’ll add ‘The Metaphysical Club’ to my queue, but to be fair, that’s about 130 books by now, and when I learn something new or find something that allows me to drill deeper, I tend to reprioritise my queue.

    I had thought about putting together a piece on pragmatism because I do feel that it’s a better approach than empiricism or rationalism, but it is still a bit of a specious claim.

    I agree with not getting too hung up on prescriptive (AKA normative) matters and aiming toward something more predictive, but given the vicissitudes of human nature, we’ve got a moving target, and both dimensions and measures are constantly changing (but not at a constant rate) and the dynamics of the system are also changing because this is a complex system that requires a systems thinking approach. But humans have a poor track record at grasping systems thinking and understanding complexity. So, that we should seek a predictive model, does not mean that we can—though humans are great at hubris—, and even the suggestion to take a prescriptive approach is in and of itself normative.

    Keynes captured the ‘human’ problem nicely with his notion of ‘animal spirits’. In economics, we have all sorts of models, and he tended to add a factor for ‘animal spirits’ at the end. The problem is that ‘animal spirits’ ends up being some stochastic function, and so the results are almost always wrong but we call them good enough for the government.

    I believe that people do seek Truth, in the same manner as the seek Love and God, but these things are archetypes. They exist at the intersection of language and emotion, but these crossroads are like a Pointillist painting. You think you see an image from a few meters away, but as you approach to view it more closely, although it felt so solid and real, you realise it’s not as your mind had constructed. The latest trend, I believe, in Truth Theory is deflationism, where we try to remove ‘truth’ from the equation; instead of asking, ‘Is it true an apple is red?’ we simply ask ‘Is as apple red?’ I think this simplifies the language function, but I don’t buy that it gets us anywhere within the realm of morality because the system we are questioning is unstable. Here, I could get into a criticism of the notion of karma and of cause and effect, but to think we’ve advanced ourselves by asking ‘Is he guilty?’ instead of ‘Is it true that he’s guilty?’ is delusional.

    Regarding the quibble about ‘arbitrary’, I’d just like to point out the distinction between ‘arbitrary’ and ‘capricious’. I am claiming the former and not the latter. ‘Arbitrary’, I think, may be overapplied in idiomatic speech. When I use the term, I mean it in the same way as language is arbitrary. So a Structuralist like Saussure (a Modern) argues that there is nothing about the word ‘tree’ (whether spoken or written) has anything to do with the referent tree in and of itself. To this end, that’s why we can call it ‘a tree’ in English, ‘un árbol’ in Spanish, ‘un arbre’ in French, ‘ein Baum’ in German, and so on. The choice is arbitrary, and even if you derive etymologically, the original name was arbitrary as well.

    So when we apply this notion to, say, gender. The concept of maleness and femaleness is arbitrary. Case in point, originally, English has only men, women and children, but children were genderless. Only a few hundred years ago, there were only girls, the term to capture children. At some point, English language speakers ‘decided’ that there needed to be a distinction between male children and female children. To further infuriate some, clothing for children had not been distinguished by sex until fairly recently either.

    So when people argue that such and such is ‘natural’, it does not take much to demonstrate that these things are choices, and the choices evolve from society, just like the latest fashion trends. These are not capricious, but they are arbitrary. This is why when you are asked to imagine what the world might look like 100 years from now, the best you’ll get is some attempt to extend from where we are, but there is no path forward.

    As I realise that this is getting lengthy yet again, it might be useful to distinguish between probability and uncertainty, the issue being that trained humans can understand probability, and we can make these educated guesses about what might or not happen. But what we can’t grasp is uncertainty. Keynes captured this as animal spirits and Nicolas Taleb called these black swans, but these are not so simple. If I ask you what is the probability that France will be at war with Germany in 50 years, we’ve got absolutely no tools to even attempt to predict this event. If it was 1940 and I asked that question, the probability would suit us just fine, but eventually, this logic all falls apart.

    In closing, the predictive notion ‘feels’ logical, but the result is both asymptotic and dynamic. So, at one moment, we feel confident in our sense of pragmatic truth, yet in another, all bets are off. Moreover, getting back to systems thinking, are we looking for universals, or are we looking for something more local? Can I apply these truths across time, across nations, across cities or states, across ethnic groups? I suggest that the answer to these questions is that the probability of this being relevant across these dimensions approaches zero, and so at that point visions of Don Quixote tilting windmills comes into view.

    Does this answer your question? Do you feel you have a better window into my perspective?

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