More on metanarratives

Following yesterday’s argument about where new stories come from, I’d like to explain why I’m so hung up on the need to understand how metanarratives work.

By metanarrative, I mean the dominant story of our civilisation. If you’ll forgive the Wikipedia definition (it may not be the best but it’s fast!) here’s what a metanarrative is, in a  couple of different contexts; the bold highlights are mine, because they reinforce the point I’ll come back to in a moment:

‘A metanarrative … in critical theory and particularly postmodernism, is an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge. According to John Stephens, it is “a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience”. The prefix meta- means “beyond” and is here used to mean “about”, and narrative is a story constructed in a sequential fashion. Therefore, a metanarrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other “little stories” within conceptual models that make the stories into a whole. In postmodern philosophy, a metanarrative is an untold story that unifies and totalizes the world, and justifies a culture’s power structures. Examples of these stories are nationalisms, religion, and science, to name a few. Metanarratives are not usually told outright, but are reinforced by other more specific narratives told within the culture.’

It’s been recognised for some considerable time by a number of writers and organisations (from Thomas Berry in the 1980s to the present-day Dark Mountain movement, and many others) that the current story we tell ourselves about who we (humans) are in the world derives from the post-Enlightenment love affair with rationality, growth, and consumption. It derives from a gradual loss of our connection with the natural world, so that we see ourselves not only as separate from ‘nature’ and the other beings that we share the planet with, but as superior. And we see the planet as something that we have the right to exploit.

So far, so good. There’s been an increasing recognition, however (one that started with the Romantics and continues in various forms today) that that particular story has negative consequences. Both for ourselves as individuals (think Paul Shepard’s thesis in Nature and Madness that we – in fact, our entire society – act in insane ways because we have lost that necessary connection with the natural world) and for the planet (think ecological crisis). And so it absolutely makes sense to say that we need a new dominant story – a new metanarrative – and it’s indeed heartening to see more recognition for this idea in public debates.

But where all of this talk of the need for a new story can go wrong is in the surprisingly common belief that metanarratives are all that we need to worry about: that the problem can be solved, or changes can be made, at the meta level. That, at the most simplistic level, we should somehow try to think up what a better metanarrative would be, and that that’s an intellectual challenge that a lot of clever people can sit around and solve. And that once we’ve got that better story, everything somehow will fall into place. (OK – I’m oversimplifying; not everyone, of course, thinks that, but there does seem to be a lot of magical thinking around narrative.) If you look at the definitions above, it’s clear that metanarratives encompass smaller stories. The key point I’m attempting to make relates to the direction in which movement happens when metanarratives change. To me, it is clear that movement can only occur from the bottom up. Because we absolutely can’t overwrite our cultural metanarrative without doing the ‘little story’ groundwork first.

What I learned as a narrative psychologist is that change starts with the individual psyche. My own psychological work with storytelling (more on narrative therapy in future posts) focused on creating transformation in individuals. Shifting the way they view themselves, their place in the world, and the story they’re living out. Stories are a wonderful tool for achieving that (so wonderful that the concept was the main theme in my first novel, The Long Delirious Burning Blue). It’s about personal mythmaking (not in any grandiose sense – again, more on that in a later post). Once you’ve figured out what your own story is, then you can start to take that out into the community. (The Transition movement is one key kind of example of that idea in practice.) And then, once you have a bunch of different individuals, groups, communities, each with their own version of a new narrative, then some time, somewhere, a new metanarrative will be born. There’s nothing especially original about this thought, of course: it’s classic bottom-up, grass-roots, bioregional thinking.

The much more interesting question for me is what these ‘smaller’ stories are – the stories that can be used to transform individuals, groups, communities so that we can eventually change the metanarrative. I believe there is ample nourishment to be had in many of the old myths of the land – myths about spirit of place, for example. Which doesn’t stop new myths from arising – but again – we can’t just make them up; lasting, transformative myths spring from a place that is very much deeper than that. The kind of myths I’m interested in spring from our deepest interactions and connections with the land – hence my constant call for experiencing the wild at first hand. And those are the kinds of myths that form my own ‘tellings’, and the kind of myths I’d like to explore in this blog, so that we can figure out how best to work with them and breathe life into them again. While transforming them for our times, and combining them with new myths that spring from the new lessons we’re now learning from our interactions with the rest of the natural world.

Update, 24/3/12: Two different email correspondences in the context of story this week have suggested that some of the people who are arguing that change must be made at the level of the metanarrative are doing so because they believe that arguing for ‘stories’ rather than ‘story’ is ‘postmodern’. Which strikes me as quite odd, because of course the argument that any multiplicity of stories must inevitably stem from a postmodern perspective on the world is fallacious. ‘Postmodern perspectives consist of a multiplicity of stories. You are arguing for a multiplicity of stories. Therefore you must be coming at this from a postmodern perspective.’ Basic logic tells you that this doesn’t necessarily follow. Whole story-worlds were in existence long before ‘postmodernism’ was even dreamed up as a catch-all concept to attempt to explain what was happening to the world. A postmodern multiplicity of stories would be fractured, broken, disconnected. What I’m arguing for is the opposite: a web of stories that is coherent, holistic, and deeply interconnected. A web of myths and stories that, by being so deeply interrelated, will lead automatically and organically to that new metanarrative that everyone wants so badly, but that can never possibly derive from the top down, like some new unelected political regime: an intellectual coup with no popular revolution in thinking and being to back it up. What we’re looking at here isn’t postmodernism, it’s post-postmodernism …

3 thoughts on “More on metanarratives

  1. HI Sharon, I am very much interested in the idea of the “small stories” and in that especially the stories that are not originating on the fringe, by thinkers, progressives and such like. I absolutely believe that good and important stuff is happening on the fringe, but wouldn’t it be amazing to mine the stories of those who would not consider themselves part of that? Maybe assumptions are being made about what the myriad small stories within the big destructive current narrative really are? What about the thoughts and wisdoms that are hiding there and at the same time the the insights the narrator would gain in the telling. I am hoping to do some work on this in the future and I am very interested in your work around personal myth making as I too am convinced that without the level of the small, no real change can ever happen. Looking forward to reading more posts here!


  2. Hello Daniela. I admit to a bias here because I believe quite strongly that if we don’t find a way back to the wild in ourselves, and through the wild that’s still ‘out there’ in so many different forms, then any new narrative is going to be just as empty as the present one. So I have a penchant for the old myths of the landscape, of spirit of place, of songlines, dreamings and the like. I don’t think we’ve mined them nearly enough. I think they provide a good basis for moving on, because I also see many examples of them being real and alive for people right now. Seems a pity to throw the baby out with the bathwater! Which isn’t to say that they’re the only ones. And I agree that the progressive intellectual fringe has its role and that it’s important but there’s a whole beating heart outside of all that which we badly need to preserve and listen to. It’s often marginalised. Look forward to your own writing on this, too. I’ve put a link here to your lovely blog.


  3. Yes, there is something in paying attention to that which gets forgotten and marginalised even by those on the progressive margin. I suppose striding forward too quickly, whether it’s with the mainstream narrative or a new one, is always a danger. It’s the pausing and careful sifting that I’m interested in – yet that is so not what the world as it is now can tolerate.
    That’s why I love this Rebecca Solnit quote: “I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare, and obscure, the impractical and local and small.” It encapsulates for me that the emphasis on “small” is intensely radical. I guess the art, and what I myself also struggle with, is the right balance between the keeping and re-framing of the old and bringing in the new. And about wildness and what that really – now – means, I think we haven’t even scratched the surface yet! Much work to do…
    Thank you also for linking to my blog.
    Best, Daniela


Comments are closed