My favourite word: Metanarratives series 1

Some of my friends joke that I can get the word ‘metanarrative’ into any conversation. Probably true. Warning: this series of posts may have an overdose of the word ‘metanarrative’!

This first post in my metanarrative series will try to define what I’m talking about for those who don’t try to slot it in to every conversation! A narrative is just a story. There are two kinds of stories that we might be talking about with the word narrative – our own personal life story and the stories we tell each other about other people, real or fictional. The first order, personal stories are experienced rather than told – lived out and shared rather than dictated or written out. The second order stories are the ones we were told as children, the novels we read, the articles in the newspaper, the dramas of movies, the ‘reality shows’ of television. They hide within them hints of third order, meta stories. Meta as a prefix can mean beyond or above or about, so a metanarrative is the story of the story. Metanarratives chart the way the world is, the way things happen, how the story is supposed to go.

We absorb metanarratives mainly subconsciously – like a ‘worldview’ we forget that they’re there most of the time, even when we’ve conditioned ourselves to examine them and their effects. But they act as ‘legitimation stories’ – like a foundation, they help us to make decisions by acting according to the storyline we expect to play out. They act as a shortcut in our minds, one we cannot eliminate if we try.

Postmodernity has been famously (and frightfully reductionistically) defined as ‘suspicion towards metanarratives.’ Lyotard is responding to the collapse of faith in Communism, especially in the European academic world, which for him takes down all metanarratives, exposing them as socially constructed and fatally flawed. While there is a great deal of suspicion of metanarratives around (economic progress is inevitable? Really…?), the reality is that we still have some of these stories buried so deep in us that they are still driving our decisions and perspectives.

The media have always been the source of metanarratives, but the sheer volume of media we are able to consume in this always-on, wirelessly-connected, socially-networked, sci-fi present day has not really changed the limited variety of  metanarratives we encounter.

‘Rags-to-Riches’ stories emphasise the ‘American Dream’ of Capitalism – economic progress is inevitable if you work hard enough for it. Even people like Bill Gates are characterised as ‘a college dropout’, minimising the fact of his ultra-privileged upbringing and the unique opportunities it afforded him. Conspicuous consumption might not be quite as popular right now in ‘austerity Britain’, but we only need look at supermarkets discussing the rise in ‘premium brands’ to show it is not far away. We might be suspicious of what politicians are telling us about the future, but we harbour not-so-secret hopes that they will be right, at least for us.

One type of movie I tend not to watch has a metanarrative of Romantic Fulfillment. It’s the myth that finding the right person to be with will solve all your problems and heal all your hurts. It’s a story that says the next person you meet could be ‘the one’ and that settling for who you have now might mean missing out on the most important person. It creates holes of dissatisfaction with the present and brings unrealistic dreams of the future closer than is possible, feeding off the tension that is partly released vicariously when we see it all go right on the screen.

The metanarrative of Empire is the use of violence as a redemptive force. I’ve written before about how this story has been around for a long time, and in action movies, it’s the only story going. When our government wants to take the country to war, the presupposition that Hollywood has etched into our thought patterns is that the only way to solve this problem – be it genocide, revolution, terrorism, drugs – is to send guns and bombs to destroy it, for only once the enemy has been defeated can peace happen. My next post will dig more into the myth of redemptive violence and looking at it from a Christian perspective. I also want to discuss how the metanarratives perceived in Scripture should be seen in the postmodern world.

I also need your feedback: what are the important metanarratives fed to us by the media that we tacitly accept? Why do you think it matters that we look at the inherent violence of them?