As my last post indicated, I’m currently reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. He’s helping me to understand the phenomenon of postmodern philosophy much better than any other tutor I’ve had previously. He is actually familiar with each author’s writings (particularly Derrida) and is therefore able to get beyond the sound bytes that most people lump postmodernism into.
Now, on the topic of metanarratives, I’ve written about one Christian response to metanarratives that rejects what Lyotard calls the postmodern “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Since Christianity itself is a metanarrative (a big story by which we understand reality), we cannot join postmodernism in rejecting metanarratives.
Smith says that this is actually a misreading of Lyotard. Lyotard begins by distinguishing between “narrative knowledge” and “scientific knowledge,” with the former being “grounded in the custom of a culture and, as such, does not require legitimation… Legitimation in terms of demonstration is not demanded but rather is implicit in the narrative itself as a story of the people.” (Smith, 66) Scientific knowledge (scientific here is used in a very broad, loose sense), on the other hand, is found within a cultural pluralism and cannot rely on any kind of narrative cultural homogeneity. Instead, scientific knowledge appeals to reason, a supposedly universal stamp of legitimation. Smith comments:
This move generates what Lyotard famously describes as metanarratives: appeals to criteria of legitimation that are understood as standing outside any particular language game and thus guarantee universal truth. And it is precisely here that we locate postmodernity’s incredulity toward metanarratives: they are just another language game, albeit masquerading as the game above all games. Or as Lyotard puts it, scientific knowledge, which considered itself to be a triumph over narrative knowledge, covertly grounds itself in a narrative. (67)
So, science (again, broadly speaking) claims to have transcended narrative, but postmodernism exposes this as a narrative itself. A metanarrative is therefore a narrative pretending that it isn’t one at all. This is the real problem for modern notions of reason and the various sciences birthed out of this narrative.
This critique opens up some new vistas to explore, as well as some old ones. It has its opportunities, as well as its problems, which Smith details:
What characterizes the postmodern condition, then, is not a rejection of grand stories in terms of scope or in the sense of epic claims, but rather an unveiling of the fact that all knowledge is rooted in some narrative or myth… The result, however, is what Lyotard describes as a “problem of legitimation” since what we thought were universal criteria have been unveiled as just one game among many. If we consider, for instance, the reality of deep moral diversity and competing visions of the good, postmodern society is at a loss to adjudicate the competing claims. There can be no appeal to a higher court that would transcend a historical context or a language game, no neutral observer or “God’s-eye view” that can legitimate or justify one paradigm or moral language game above another. (69)
Although this seems to throw open the doors to relativism, Smith makes some further poignant observations:
But is this situation as bad as we think? Are we lamenting the loss of what was a very modern hegemony of America, for instance? Is our situation really all that different from the situation of the apostle Paul or Augustine? Should we be trying to establish a common myth for an entire nation—a Constantinian strategy—or should the church simply be a witness amid this plurality of competing myths? (70)
I’m still chewing on this myself. What do you think?