[-empyre-] Meta-

joseph tabbi jtabbi at gmail.com
Sat Apr 25 12:02:52 EST 2009

The transcendence of Meta-Narrative as itself a Meta-Narrative?

Logically, Michael, that makes sense. I suppose it's a question of
where one situates oneself. Lyotard, after all, made the absence of
meta-narratives into a narrative of a new, emergent period, a
'post-modern' era defined by the loss of faith in the grand narratives
of modernity. Freud, Marx, and Durkeim, once so powerful and capable
of explaining so much, with the passing of time could be seen as
expressive of the hopes, aspirations, oppressions and (consequent?)
repressions of a certain /period/. The fact that the old explanations
failed to convince, or failed to convince in ways that could inspire
widespread dedication to a cause, was an indication that society had
reached a different moment. The transformation in sensibiity occurred,
palpably, whether or not the post-modernists were paradoxical or
contradictory in how they described the occurrence.

It does seem to be the case that, by Lyotard's time (1970s, '80s), the
only narratives to attain an (admittedly restricted) power, were those
that admitted their own contingency, their dependence on a particular
subject position, their construction of a situated identity. If there
were not so many actual 'petit histoires' on offer, in the cultural
domain, the meta-narrative of postmodernity would not have been
persuasive (at least, not for as long as it was persuasive).

(for as long as it has been persuasive?)

But maybe there's another way to look at this. Michael's observation
expresses a paradox: the observation of the passing of grand
narratives is itself a grand narrative. Right. But what if we simply
recognize the development /as/ a paradox? and then take this paradox
as a starting point? as a way of legitimating the proliferation of
mini-narratives? an acknowledgment that our time is derivative, not
likely to have a dominant narrative of its own any time soon?

Deflation of grandiosity certainly is the rhetoric of the day. "Yes we
can" is about as grand as we can hope for, these days. Yes, /we/ can -
even if Big Government, that mythical grandee, purportedly can't. (Can
I be forgiven for thinking back with nostalgia  to 'nothing to fear
but fear itself,' a slogan from long before I was born?  If the Obama
team really wants to jump-start the economy, the President's
speachwriters might consider the power of paradox and the logic of the
bootstrap.... )

An admission of paradox (not as a problem in logic but as a starting
point) is in fact the approach taken by Luhmann, when he inaugurates
an alternative to the 'petit histoires' of postmodernity, and when he
attempts to replace talk of "cultures" with descriptions of
"functional systems." I'm away from my library, but I recall Luhmann's
opening an early major work, with something like the sentence: "We
assume there are systems." An essay that I can look up now, online,
opens with a similar move (the systems theorist was nothing if not

  "No one, I think, will dispute the fact of a global system."

I cited that once, in an email conversation with Stefanie Strickland,
and Stef responded (immediately): '/I/ dispute it!'

But the point is not, really, whether a global system exists or not.
There are certainly narratives of globalization that many people
believe in, or we act as though we do. If people believe in a system,
a  description, or a narrative, then that belief offers a starting
point, something to build on. (Not a foundation - that only comes
later, after the system establishes itself, after a sufficient
investment in the system is established, and belief in the system
becomes widespread and self-sustaining.)

"We don't do grand narratives anymore." That's what society tells
itself nowadays. But this mode of self-understanding doesn't have to
be a contradiction; it can be a way of seeing the grand
meta-narratives of the past for what they are, and marking our own
society as /different/.  We don't do foundations or universals, we
deflate anyone who attempts a grand claim. Or history does the job of
deflation for us: "Mission accomplished" is unlikely to be remembered,
even ironically, for long. Maybe 'You're doing a heckuva job,
Brownie,' will fare better as ecological crises pick up.

We've gotten over 'grand,' That is what makes our current systems
powerful and also democratic (so we can tell ourselves). Those small
acts of resistance cited by Marc Herbst, "the glorious miasma of
identities [having] the capacity in little and big ways to tilt at
windmills" - what are these, if not elements in a current
counter-narrative to those bygone grandies. Instead of revolution
orchestrated by the state, we have resistance in the everyday,
unorganized and emergent. These acts of resistance are observable,
certainly, for those who know where and how to look for them (in
Ithaca and everywhere, every day). But the notion that these small
acts can add up to something, that they can effect a change or affect
a system in beneficial ways - that is a matter of belief, plain and

To observe a system (a former grand narrative), and to use that
observation as a way of marking our own difference: that is a kind of
/re-entry/ (another key term in systems theory). Once we can mark our
difference, the old narratives become no more, or less, grand than the
stories we tell ourselves about  our own place in, solidarity with,
and/or resistance to, the current world system.


> On Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 10:27 PM, Michael Angelo Tata, PhD
> <mtata at ipublishingllc.com> wrote:
>> I am reminded of Rorty: contingency and irony as a basis for solidarity.
>> Despite pomo-ism, have we transcended the meta-N, or is a meta-N of no
>> meta-N a meta-N after all?
>> *******************************************
>> Michael Angelo Tata, PhD  347.776.1931-USA
>> http://www.MichaelAngeloTata.com/

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