Reports of the death of metanarratives have been greatly exaggerated. Critiques of grand narratives (metanarratives) often have the respectable intention of protecting the specificity of different peoples and places from the homogenizing and totalizing effects of universal claims that are supposed to apply to everyone in all times and places. But these critiques fail on numerous accounts.
There are at least four problems with typical criticisms of grand narratives.
First, those criticisms do not admit the irony of their position—a universal prohibition against universal frameworks, such that it is always and everywhere wrong to tell a story that is supposed to encompass always and everywhere. Instead of accepting the irony and working to limit the hegemony of grand narratives while acknowledging their relative inevitability, critics of grand narratives do not face their own grand position—the ideology against ideology—and instead maintain cynical disbelief of others’ attempts to articulate big pictures and comprehensive frameworks.
Second, critics of grand narratives often misinterpret Jean François Lyotard’s definition of postmodernity (“incredulity toward metanarratives”). 1) They mistake it for incredulity toward all big picture thinking, including premodern cosmovisions, but it was primarily incredulity toward narratives of self-legitimating cultural imperialism, such as modern rationalist (Enlightenment) and dialectical (Marxist) narratives of progress and emancipation. 2) Ironically, critics of metanarratives often adopt a Marxist narrative, attempting to liberate people from the oppressive force of metanarratives, but that is exactly what Lyotard found incredulous. Lyotard’s point is not to wield the hammer of criticism. The point is to do justice to the differends of contrasting phrase regimens.
Third, critics of grand narratives tend to homogenize all grand narratives, failing to acknowledge the differences (and differends) between them, considering those differences to be irrelevant details compared to the underlying falsity of being a grand narrative at all. Those differences do matter, as some metanarratives are more open, extended, and hospitable to the specificity of the shimmering singularities in the swarm of coexistence. Furthermore, some of those metanarratives come from within critical theory itself, which seems to be something that’s missed when people draw on critical theory to critique metanarratives. Consider Foucault’s archaeology of human knowledge or the narrative that Hardt and Negri present of the oppression of the multitude by Empire and the recuperation of the commons.
Fourth, by clinging to a fantasy of a world without ideology, critics of grand narratives cede power to the reigning ideology, the de facto grand narrative orienting globalization: capitalism.
The problem with grand narratives is not that they are too grand but, if anything, they are insufficiently grand, insufficient in their accountability to humans and nonhumans in their effulgent differences, and insufficient in their capacity for countering the two dominant grand narratives of the twenty-first century: global capitalism, which is endangering and extinguishing life on Earth, and cynicism, the relativistic anti-narrative that aids global capitalism by prohibiting the construction of alternative grand narratives.