Postmodernist hostility to narrative

Lyotard has identified antipathy to grand narratives as the dominant characteristic of postmodernity. Modernity was structured by such grand narratives. Its intellectual disciplines or sciences legitimated themselves by reference to some normative 'metadiscourse'—'making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative', such as Hegelian dialectics of the Spirit, Marxist emancipation of the proletariat, capitalist creation of wealth, rationalist positivism and so on. The most impressive of all was the grand narrative or metadiscourse of the Enlightenment, with its faith in reason and its hope in progress. But that is absent from postmodernity. 'Simplifying to the extreme,' writes Lyotard, 'I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. ' Metanarratives, which give overarching meaning to a society, a science or a cause, are the victims of the undermining of all narratives—of the narrative structure of identity and human life. In traditional societies, the social bond is transmitted through the pragmatic rules embedded in narrative. But in postmodernity, knowledge exists no longer in narrative form but in the form of information technology, bringing a 'loss of meaning'. Narrative knowledge is self-authenticating in a way that is foreign to postmodernity: 'it certifies itself in the pragmatics of its own transmission without having recourse to argument and proof.' Narrative statements seem then—to those schooled in the culture of information technology—to belong 'to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children' (Lyotard, 1984, pp.xxiii-xxiv, 21-7).

But this line of argument is, we must say, merely a republication—with a vengeance— of the Enlightenment's arrogant misconception of myth, which reached its culmination (as we shall see) in the work of Sir James Fraser in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An attack on narrative is an attack on metaphor, symbol and myth. As we shall see as we go on, metaphor is elaborated into symbol and symbols are constellated in narrative form to create myth. Postmodernity is as hostile to the values of realist symbolism, as is the modernity stemming from the Enlightenment. Postmodernity is clearly as inhospitable to a realist (reality-referring, truth-bearing) concept of imaginative truth as is the modernity deriving from the Enlightenment. In this book we are addressing the question: how does the relegation of metaphor, symbol and myth to the realm of the trivial and the unreal in both modernity and postmodernity affect the way we evaluate the truth-claims of the Christian faith?

Francis Fukuyama famously prophesied 'the end of history'—the cessation of the historical process of development on account of the final triumph of liberal democracy and of capitalist free-market economics, where the freedom to seek one's own advantage is mysteriously subsumed by the common good. Fukuyama foresaw the triumph of modernity, the high noon of Enlightenment (Fukuyama, 1992). When Communism was crumbling it was not difficult to prophesy what was already being fulfilled. When it became apparent what was immediately taking its place in former Marxist regimes— industrial paralysis and social disintegration—Fukuyama began to have second thoughts. Only thus belatedly did he discern the acids of postmodernity that are the decadent waste-product of modernity's undermining of the end of history—alienating, fragmenting, sapping the common purpose and preventing benevolent capitalism from generating its blessings of work, free exchange and prosperity! This led Fukuyama to publish a sequel to The End of History and the Last Man and he called it Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (Fukuyama, 1995). Only those societies that foster an attitude of trust and build fruitful relationships outside their own kinship systems can flourish economically, he argued. Thus Fukuyama has proposed a fiduciary basis for economics.

All this is a parable. In place of modernity's disparagement of the figurative in language—its contempt for metaphor as mere adornment, its suspicion of symbol as superstition and its patronising of myth as primitive history—and in place of postmodernity's devaluation of the figurative by divorcing it from rational discourse and making it a frivolous end in itself, I want to argue for an alternative tradition that invites us to trust ourselves in the first instance to a language that is greater than ourselves, and in particular to trust ourselves to metaphor, symbol and myth. Trust, openness and receptivity are the first steps in discernment of the truth. They do not, of course, remove the need for suspicion, interrogation and criticism as we pursue our enquiry to its conclusion. The aesthetic does not supplant the ethical, nor does imagination do away with reason. Kierkegaard's critical appropriation of the legacy of the Romantic imagination is a case in point. To a reappropriation of an alternative tradition we now turn.

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