In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard (“leo-TAR”) argues that all cultures, ancient and modern, legitimate themselves through the telling and retelling of narratives, stories that give cultures purpose and meaning. The story of the European Enlightenment and the Age of Reason separating the West from the rest of humanity remains the metanarrative of today, central to the creation of meaning in our culture, the big story on which countless smaller stories are stacked. The heroic West, it is said, brings freedom to the world through democracy and reason to the world through science. Lyotard compares this story of “salvation for all” to the similar metanarratives of Christianity and Marxism.
Without faith and trust in the metanarrative, retelling and rebinding ourselves and others to it, many would have little idea what their lives or our culture mean. Because so many have stacked their own story and the meaning of their lives on top of the dominant story and meaning, if you question the way of the ancestors and poke the bear spirit, if you doubt that our practices of democracy and science are bringing freedom and wellbeing to everyone, to many you are an outsider, a dangerous deviant who threatens the safety of the tribe.
Unfortunately for the metanarrative, the horrors of WWII and the manufactured genocide at Auschwitz spawned the countercultural attacks of the fifties, sixties and seventies. Counterculturals began asking out loud if the story of Western progress is also a mask for brutality and if the West is much like the rest, ignorant and authoritarian.
Jack Kerouac wrote of the “beat generation”, the beatnik youth of the fifties who turned from American conformity, tired and doubtful of consumerism and the Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement of the sixties called for revolutionary changes to American democracy, which openly excluded many due to race and gender, at the same time protesting the Vietnam War.
Lyotard argues that Postmodernism is a playful engagement with many conflicting micro-narratives, alternatives that have emerged in the space created by the questioning of the grand metanarrative. While critics argued that Postmodernism and the end of the metanarrative is itself a new metanarrative, Lyotard countered that the metanarrative of the progress of the West is far from dead, merely resisted here and there by a variety of countercultures. For many, the dominance of wealthy nations, the environmental impact of technology on the world’s poor and the supremacist nature of the Western metanarrative is unquestioned, either out of ignorance or with regret that has no faith in an alternative.
Critics of Lyotard and Postmodernism continue to ask whether this is a cure for the condition or merely another symptom. Is Postmodernism, like the narrative of modernity, genuine liberation, or is it merely a safety valve to accommodate counterculturals, scholars and gallery goers who are disenchanted but still require entertainment?