January 2014

Grand Narrative

Written by David Gress 1998

Grand narrative is a term introduced by Jean-François Lyotard in his classic 1979 work: “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” in which Lyotard summed up a range of views which were being developed at the time, as a critique of the institutional and ideological forms of knowledge. Encyclopedia of Marxism

Narrative knowledge is knowledge in the form of storytelling. In the tribal times, myths and legends formed knowledge of this type; that such-and-such a mountain was just where it was because some mythic animal put it there, and so on.The narrative not only explained, but legitimated knowledge, and when applied to the social relations of their own society, the myths functioned as a legitimation of the existing power relations, customs and so on.

The great religions of the feudal world – Christianity, Islam and Buddhism – institutionalised this narrative knowledge, and monotheism invested the narrative with a unitary extramundane subject as the central agent. It was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) who exposed how the Christian narrative was not an explanation but a legitimation of the norms of Christian society.

With the arrival of the modern era, natural science introduced a different kind of explanation of things in terms of material processes and causes. However, the narrative form continued – as it must! – in social theory and histriography. The telling of history is, after all, a narrative.

Looked at from the postmodern perspective, all knowledge becomes narrative however. For example, rather than saying that “the existence of oxygen has been proved,” there is a ‘little’ narrative about the experiment Antoine Lavoisier (1743- 1794) carried out.

The concept of grand narrative, and in particular what Lyotard called the “emancipation narrative,” concerns the kind of narrative which talks, not just about “one thing after another”, but sees some kind of interconnection between events, an inner connection between events related to one another, a succession of social systems, the gradual development of social conditions, and so on – in other words, is able in some way to make sense of history. More particularly, when pronounced as it is, the “grand narrative”, the “narrative of emancipation” is all those conceptions which try to make sense of history, rather than just isolated events in history, concepts like “class struggle”, socialism and capitalism, productive forces and so on.

According to Lyotard, in the postmodern period, people no longer believe in grand narratives, and consequently, to the armies of postmodern pen-pushers, ipso facto, “grand narratives” are old fashioned and oppressive – oppressive because one grand narrative excludes another and doesn’t my narrative have just as much right to truth as yours?

And what is this theory about “grand narrative” really about? It is another version of the end of history, another way of saying that perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes in society are as good as it gets.

Nevertheless, the concept does tell us something about postmodern capitalism. Postmodern society has made the conception of real progress difficult to sustain, meaning is contested and fragmented, and it is difficult to see a way out of the morass. The old conceptions of the onward march of the working class to socialism are no longer convincing. This is the nature of the political terrain in which socialism must find a way forward.


From Plato to NATO The
Idea of the West and Its Opponents


A good example of how the Grand Narrative theory can be understood is by reading: “From Plato to Nato by David Gress.” Francis Fukuyama briefly explains in his review of the book that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the question of the future of the “West” has become part of the recent political debate over the course of “macrohistory.” The West has variously been described as the only available and therefore inevitable model by conservatives, denounced as the source of a unique evil by many on the left, or else relegated to the status of just another (and not necessarily the best) civilization by spokesmen like Lee Kuan Yew and Samuel Huntington. The author of this massive, insightful volume argues that even the West’s staunchest defenders do not really understand what the West is. They have, he argues, bought into what he calls the “grand narrative” by which the idea of freedom was born in Greece, nurtured by Roman law, and implemented in the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment such that it could eventually become the political basis legitimating NATO’s self-defence against communism. In a serious and thought-provoking book, Gress points out that this narrative reduces the West to a lowest common denominator by stripping it of its historical cultural content so as to be palatable to modern liberal sensibilities. Thus religion, and specifically Christianity, was a key element of the Western synthesis, but had to be downplayed because of the West’s many non- Christians. Basing contemporary Western identity on relatively thin notions of democracy and market capitalism give it universalist pretensions but rob it of its affective core. The problem with the thin version, Gress points out, is that it is ultimately vulnerable to self-undermining because its universalism begets multiculturalism and moral relativism. Those who hope to defend the West against its rivals would do well to consider the ideas presented here.

By David Gress 1998

www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/54231/ francis-fukuyama/from-plato-to-nato-the-ideaof- the-west-and-its-opponents
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
NATO’s essential purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.
ansamed.info/ansamed/en/news/sections/ generalnews/2014/01/09/Nato-Germanyextends- deployment-Patriots-Turkey_9871245.html
carnegieeurope.eu/ strategiceurope/?fa=54124

Yes, this is a ‘work of art’ that I saw while on holiday in Melbourne over Christmas. The Melbourne-based artist collective The Hotham Street Ladies has taken over the foyer of the Ian Potter Centre: Fed Square Melbourne with a sugar coated vision of life in a share-house. “We’re just trying to make observations about the types of interiors we lived in and bring them, transformed in icing, into this space,” Cassandra Chilton told ABC Arts on site in the foyer of NGV Australia. “I think that a lot of people have lived in these houses that are a mash up of furniture, or have lived with other people, and have to bring their aesthetics together,” she adds. If you’d like to know more, a video has been produced explaining the how and the why: abc.net.au/arts/video/2013/ melbourne-now-the-hotham-streetladies- 131115/default.htm


The Grand Narrative:
Twentieth Century Economic History

Every history tells a story of what happened: one damned thing after another. But which story do you tell?

If you are telling a story of the history of five hundred years ago, you most-likely focus on Martin Luther and Jean Calvin’s Protestant Reformation, on the Spanish conquest of the Americas, on the rise of the Shahan-e Gurkani—the Moghul Empire—in the Indian subcontinent, and maybe a couple more. Those are the axes of the history of the 1500s: religion, expansion, and conquest. If you are telling a story of a thousand years ago, you most-likely focus on the rise of the Song Dynasty in China, on the waning of the golden age that was Abbasid Baghdad-centred Islamic civilization, and on, perhaps, the establishment of feudal “civilization” in western Europe. Those are the axes of the history of the 1000s: politics and culture. Other stories of other centuries would most-likely focus on the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the shift of China’s population centre of gravity to the rice-growing south and so forth. The rise, diffusion, and fall of dynasties, empires, religions, and cultures are the axes of history, with perhaps some reference to what the cultures of material subsistence in the background were and how they slowly changed.

But what will people 500 years in the future see the principal axes of our history, of the history that set the patterns into which their civilization grew, of the history of the extended 1870-2010 twentieth century?

The major theme has to be that the history of the twentieth century was overwhelmingly economic and was—all in all—glorious. The history has an extremely depressing middle: a wolf-fanged century, wrote Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, “but I am not a wolf ”. However unlikely it seemed in his time, our ending today is—so far—much more happy than tragic. Certainly this is the case when we use a relative yardstick, and compare the end of the twentieth century to all previous centuries. Yes, forms of religious strife and terror that we thought we had left behind several centuries ago are back. Yes, failures of economic policy that land countries in depression, that we thought we had learned how to resolve decades ago, are back. Yes, nuclear weapons and global warming pose dangers for the future of a magnitude that humanity has never before confronted. Nevertheless, all in all the North Atlantic today is a (relatively) free and prosperous region, and the rest of the world is if not free and prosperous at least closer to being so than at any time in the past.

This is the Grand Narrative.

Of course, that the explosion of material wealth and liberty we have seen in the twentieth century has not solved our human problems is obvious. That the likely spread of ample material plenty and, if we are lucky, increasing democracy and freedom to much of the rest of the globe that the twenty-first century may see will not solve our human problems is obvious as well. We have little confidence today that we know how to achieve successful economic development in the world: the East Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the North Atlantic crisis of the late 2000s broke confidence in both the East Asian state-led and the neoliberal openness-led development models. The twenty-first century problems of global environmental management have not yet been addressed. Wars of religion are, if not back, on the horizon. And modern North Atlantic liberal democracy is not the end of history. And there is the fact that the utopia toward which we have seemed to be progressing—a prosperous, liberal, democratic one—is not to everyone’s taste, as the terror-bombers who destroyed the World Trade Centre and killed 3000 people on September 11, 2001 and subsequent military-political attempts to spread or contain a new set of wars of religion have made clear.

A naive individual of a century or two ago would wonder at the events, patterns, and problems that brought the twentieth century to its end. The world at the end of the twentieth century has enough wealth to give everyone on the globe what they would regard as a rich upper-middle class style of life. Why does such a rich and powerful world still have problems? It is not at all clear that we will recognize our destination when we arrive at it, or that many of us will like it when we get there. At best, we are but slouching towards utopia.