The death of meta-narratives

17th-century French philosopher René Descartes probably had never envisaged, in his wildest dreams, that his famous dictum ‘cogito, ergo sum’ (“I think, therefore I am”) would be completely rejected by Generation Z, Y, and A, especially during the postmodern times. Nor did the proponents of the theories of the modern era ever imagine that a time would come when fundamental ideologies, time-tested beliefs, and universal truths would lose their meaning.
We live in a postmodern time; the era of the death of meta-narratives. An era that ended the age of reason, an era where truth is under scrutiny, an era where ideologies are viewed with scepticism, an era where morality and ethical values have no meaning, an era where according to Vaclav Havel, ‘Everything is possible and almost nothing is certain’. When Jean-Francois Lyotard first defined postmodernity in his famous book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979, the majority of us misunderstood what he meant. It is safe to admit that he was far ahead of his times and prophetically predicted the future (the present times) while critically analysing the socio-economical, cultural, ethical, and political manifestations of such an era. So, it is imperative to first understand the concepts of modernism before dissecting the challenges of postmodernism.
The era of modernism is generally referred to as a period that starts from 1870-1910 and runs through the present times. The era describes the various domains of Euro-American cultures that emerged from the concepts of ‘Enlightenment’ (a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity were considered the ‘grand narratives’).
The era of modernism strongly believed in the meta-narratives based on the core principle of objective natural reality, the concept of absolute truth, and grand ideologies which were not to be questioned. According to Hayden White, an American historian, this era saw the emergence of four master narratives that derived the world cultures and societies for decades: Greek Fatalism, Marxist Socialism, Bourgeois Revolutionism and Christian Redemptionism.
For centuries, societies defined their socioeconomic, religious, and political boundaries around these meta-narratives. The ideology of the nation-state, industrialization, rise of capitalism, urbanization, mass literacy, the proliferation of mass media, an upsurge of representative democracy, the revolution in the field of science & technology, colonization by great empires, etc. were some of the basic characteristics of the modern era. In short, people believed that the problems in societies around the world can be resolved and managed through a system grounded on logic, reason, objectivity, and time-tested theories.
Then came the postmodern times; the era that rejected the concepts of meta-narratives and criticized the long-held beliefs regarding society’s value systems, the characteristics of human nature, ethical and moral boundaries, and above all the objective reality. In short, postmodernism means there is no absolute truth and there is no absolute falsehood, everything is debatable and every doctrine is questionable. For a long time, humanity believed in various socio-economic, religious, political, and cultural ideologies which gave them a true meaning of life in this worldly world. The Christians believed that human nature, after the creation of Adam and the universe, was fundamentally sinful but redemption could lead them to heaven.
The Muslims always believed in one God and the life hereafter. The Marxists argued that societies could only progress when the proletariat would revolt against the bourgeoisie and one-day capitalism would fall. The Enlightenment theorists alleged that rational reasoning, coupled with scientific explanations would certainly ensure the moral, social, and ethical progress of the societies. Geologists claimed that it was the ‘big bang’ that created this universe while Darwin was of the view that the human species were merely the outcome of the long evolution of Apes. But every ideology which we held for so long seems to be falling apart around us.
We challenge and criticize the veracity of these claims and look at these belief systems with scepticism during these postmodern times. Lyotard believes that the grand narratives have now lost their influence and can no longer persuade humans to believe in the various versions of the objective truth. He further ascertains that the meta-narratives are to be replaced by ‘petits récits’, simply put the ‘localized’ or ‘small’ narratives, each governed by smaller sections of the societies or maybe individuals. This led to the disintegration of centuries-old family systems in which we once took pride.
So, how is all of this relevant to us? We live in these postmodern times and see its true manifestation unfolding in front of us. The rebellion against the typically accepted grand narratives has changed the way our societies are now functioning. What was believed to be unethical, against the norms, and immoral, a few decades ago, is now being acquiescently practiced under the garb of a ‘new normal’ as advocated under postmodernism. People around the globe now openly question religious beliefs, the real meaning of life, the once unquestionable code of conduct of pluralistic societies, the importance of human relationships, the value of jurisprudence, and above all the meaning of freedom and liberty. It has impacted every domain of our socioeconomic, political, and cultural lives.
Art, creativity, language, content writing, media, filmmaking, etc. all have gone through a radical change in the name of so-called ‘innovation’ or thinking ‘out of the box’. Films like ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Inception’, ’8 ½’, ‘And Blade Runner’ are some examples of the postmodern era that are aimed to sabotage the highly regarded expectations of the audience, attacking the very basics of orthodox filmmaking while experimenting with the blending of various genres. ‘Pastiche’, ‘Distortion of Time’’ and ‘Hyperreality’ are also some of the interesting characteristics of the postmodern era. In this regard, Jean Baudrillard (considered to be a high priest of postmodernism) argued that hyperrealism is “more real than real”. People around the world, now, rely more on hyperreality than reality. That’s why the image or the copy of the original is more powerful, attractive, and has more meaning than the original in postmodernism. The high-resolution illustration of a juicy burger as advertised by a fast-food chain looks more attractive and convincing to the consumers as compared to the original in today’s hyperreal world.
Postmodernism is making ripples around the world. It is changing the way we used to look at our world under the solace of once ‘universally accepted’ metanarratives. We don’t have that luxury anymore. It has impacted all nations, societies, cultures, and religions across the globe, and Pakistan is no exception. Over the last decades, we have seen a fundamental shift in our cognitive thinking, attitudes, and behaviours regarding every aspect of life. We have started to question the very basics of our religious ideologies, the two-nation theory, and our time-tested moral, ethical, and cultural values which remained the binding force of our pluralistic society for centuries.
Not only limited to society as a whole, even our character traits, the way we dress up, the way we interact with elderly and young ones, and the manner we tackle our responsibilities at the domestic level—all have gone through a radical shift. Now it’s okay or more precisely ‘cool’ to be shabbily and weirdly dressed up while visiting a posh or expensive restaurant, crossing all boundaries of ethical and moral values when it comes down to making money—something we never even imagined a couple of decades back. And we do this under the garb of freedom and liberty as advocated by the postmodern theorists. There were times when discussion on the possibilities of Pak-Israel relations was considered to cross the red line, however, it’s openly debated in all public and private spheres.
Individualism, materialism, consumerism, isolationism, and hyperrealism in various societies at large are some of the products of postmodernity. Here another question arises. What about postmodern mass media and its role in present times? Probably the theories of Marshall McLuhan would be the best place to look for such answers. When in the 1960s, his concept of ‘Medium is the Message’ took the world by storm, very few understood what he meant. We can see his prophecy coming true in the present times. The digital media platforms, technological advancements, and our ever-growing independence from them are the real manifestations of the postmodern era.
Postmodernism and its underlying theories are just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot to come in the forms of post-postmodernism, post-hyperrealism, post-structuralism, post-materialism, etc. If you think that we would soon be out of the clutches of these mind-boggling and ever-challenging concepts; I bet you better think again!