“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements—narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on […] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?”Jean-Francois Lyotard
The banality of ‘cultural wars’ and spreading secularism has become near unbearable. The West is spinning its tires and the East is having an identity crisis. In the works of Lyotard, the postmodern condition is specifically defined by its metanarrative, or rather the lack of a metanarrative. Habermas and others have noted that the incredulity toward metanarratives could be a metanarrative itself. For the sake of this entry a metanarrative is defined as an overarching grand narrative that a culture and those of it use to derive values, knowledge, and comprehend phenomena.
In the too often quoted statement by Nietzsche, ‘God is dead’. In the context of this subject it signifies the death of the Christian metanarrative that has dominated Europe since the Middle Ages. Existence, politics, suffering, and so forth was explained through Christian narrative. At times there were disputes concerning interpretation, but narrative was largely homogeneous, hence the word ‘Catholic’ meaning Universal. The Enlightenment and Classical Liberalism led to modifications in the Christian metanarrative, but it wasn’t until the 20th century could it be confidently state that God was indeed dead. The metanarrative was fragmented due to the rise of secularism, rise of the secular State, progress in sciences, increase in industrialism and consumerism, and decay of Christianity. This is known to anyone who has studied an inkling of the 20th century. The end result has varied from materialist nihilism, progressive humanism, and those who cling to the remains of Christianity.
That bit of history covered, where are we currently? It is 2015, the majority of European nations are increasingly secular, cultural traditions have been largely replaced with worker-consumer lifestyles. birth rate is decreasing, and the lack of metanarrative has been patched up with vapid ‘good without God’ relativism and the myth of progress. There are even those who have turned in on themselves, the West against the West, ashamed of its masterful history and wallowing in vain guilt. Science is relied upon to determine knowledge, and any position which questions positivism is immediately dismissed and mocked. Science is an instrument for determining knowledge about the external world, but it is no instrument for determining ethics or deeper contents of ones existence. The existential vacuum was addressed in the Existential Movement, but needless to say it was insufficient and resolved little. In the so-called ‘godless West’ the individual has been reduced to the worker-consumer whose existence does not go much deeper than the latest social trends and consumer products. It is a passive nihilism filled with shallow stimulation. Entertainment, manufactured problems, the illusion of self-development…Kafka’s The Trial has become daily existence. Truly the 21st Century existence is a show about nothing. It contains no plot, no direction, no goals, it is only the bumbling passing of days.
The East faces its own laundry list of issues which I cannot and am incapable of addressing in particulars. Two central themes which are currently relevant is the industrialization of India and China, and the identity of the Arabic-Muslim world. From Maoism to state-run capitalism (purposely oxymoron) has taken quantification and reductionism to its extreme. The individual is not merely a worker-consumer, it is a downright nameless cogwheel. This has carried over from the Maoist past. Materialist collectivism reduces existence to the strictly material without a modicum of existential depth. It is a form of dehumanization and nihilism through economics. Similar can be said of India as it increasingly industrializes and urban spreads, though not at all to the extremity of China. Again there is a lack of metanarrative, a vacuum persists, a passive nihilism.
The ‘clash’ of Western secularism and spreading Islam has been discussed ad nauseum without a resolution. There are pollyanna liberals who scold Christianity and defend Islam, praise tolerance and cherrypick diversity. There are also atheists whom are doggedly and militantly against Islam and any similar form of religion. Protestantism has devolved into satirical Jingoism, and the Catholic Church no longer has teeth. There is no unifying metanarrative, people are in dire need of meaning, and the West has utterly failed to supply that.
The Arab-Muslim world faces its own inner struggles between secularism, traditional Islam, and extreme fundamentalism. It has been speculated that Islam will soon outpace Christianity. European birth rate has decreased and Islam continues to spread. What Islam has that the West does not is a unifying metanarrative that gives individuals meaning to their existence. I am not stating this meaning is true, right, or preferable. What I am saying is that this metanarrative delivers what the West has failed to deliver. Imperialism does not require military action, only a strong enough unifying metanarrative to conquer a nation. Islam could very well win in the so-called ‘culture wars’ if the West does not rebound from entropy. Many believe secular liberalism and democratic values will spread throughout the Middle East in due time. Others advocate Catholicism to defend and define the West, a return to its former role. More radical temperaments are reactionists that preach Tradition, fascism, monarchy, or tribalistic anarchism. It may perhaps take further extreme fragmentation and decentralization for profound developments to occur.
Lyotard was correct in his definition. The metanarrative has dissolved in late modernism; resulting in a honeycomb of relative narratives and total lack of meaning. Weeping about degeneracy and railing against modernity is how a small agitated mind responds. These are tulmultuous times. Better to enjoy and thrive than be consumed in fretfulness. As usual, only time will tell how this show about nothing will conclude.