Sunday, October 02, 2011

Metanarratives - what do I make of them?

I have been reading some stuff on the meta-narrative lately. Had read the “postmodernism - a short introduction” sometime back with rather patchy takeaways. Couple of good things that did come out of that though were this slowly dawning understanding of the metanarrative and the postmodern condition for one and purchase and reading of “History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” for two.

I have always been aware of the concept of metanarrative – though with other names. In short it is the big story – story behind all stories – in a given ideology, way of thinking, value system etc. Capitalism, Christianity, Gay Rights Movement, Portfolio theory, Evolution are all examples of metanarratives. A metanarrative need not be internally consistent or logical. It needs to be credulous and believable by human beings. Hence many seriously followed cults are metanarratives – however questionable their premises and practices might be for the average thinking person.

Why are metanarratives important? Primarily to understand the biases or thought processes of those using them. In fact the leading philosopher of postmodernism Jean-François Lyotard defined postmodernism as incredulity to all metanarratives. The book I read on postmodernism is also quite explicit in its suspicion of all grand theories. The general thought process (another metanarrative?!) of the postmodern proposal is that anything which has an overarching ideology, value system and thought process is already inconsistent with reality, freedom and individuality (all three of these are distinctly relevant and non-trivial claims.) If we are to believe the postmodern proposal, any metanarrative will introduce (sometimes obvious and sometimes deep-rooted and subtle but powerful) biases in one’s thinking – thus taking away personal freedom as also compromising on a fair/true representation of reality.

I believe this to be half true. However, considering the distance we have gone in oversimplifying things and over-generalizing the world, the emphasis on incredulity of the meta-narrative might be a welcome respite. But let us leave the timing and “intellectual marketability” of the proposal for a while and focus on whether it truly says something accurate.

I had written another blog on the human obsession with easy generalities. I had inadvertently touched upon the possible human trait to create/follow meta-narratives. In opposing meta-narrative we might be trying to transcend our limited human cognitive toolkit by merely wishful thinking. In other words, it might be that we are limited in our mental faculties in a way that makes us long for meta-narratives. If so, merely declaring incredulity towards meta-narratives follows the same path that theories of justice, peace, equality and universal empowerment take. The path of utopian and ignorant modelling of human beings – leading one to think that what seems “good” and “right” automatically also becomes “feasible” and better still “optimal”.

Why do I say that? It is because I have a fundamental belief in what Neils Bohr referred to as the limitation of human mind. I believe that our minds are shaped by various forces of nature – and are by brute force of evolution, optimized for thinking in a certain way. This way did not involve abstraction of the sort that calls for the ambiguous construct of justice, being right and so on. On the other hand, what we think is likely to be best for us or someone else need not be an accurate prediction either. Combine these two and one is likely to feel rather worried about creating any master narrative – but unfortunately including that of calling master narratives incorrect.

So, I share the incredulity of postmodernism about most meta-narratives. However, I am keen to explore if I could use them as models of reality which help me organize my life. Insofar as the “absolute” truth is anyway off-limits for me, I might as well start making some sense of life around me to get ahead. If I take the models to be what they are and avoid falling in love with them (a big if admittedly) I could hope to navigate the world a little better than starting from scratch at all points of time.

Or is this oversimplification? Is this obsession with navigating life with the help of models (loved and obsessed on or caveated and unloved) a limitation of my mind that I can work to overcome and I am giving up the chance of? If I abandon all meta-narratives, can I still continue living and achieve another level of being – which does not require such modelling? Will that open some other dimension of understanding of the world to me? Or is it meant more to be a more fulfilling life? Or is it meant to be a more intellectually-at-peace-with-oneself-but-forever-disturbed-otherwise sort of life?

Whatever I may choose on the personal front, the society that I am a part of will have its own plan (or a collective outcome of individual choices which might be simplified as the society’s plan!) In here being suspicious of meta-narratives is probably a much better attitude on the balance. Meta-narratives are seductive – owing to their simplicity and ability to make sense of the world. A common person feels lost in absence of these. In fact meta-narratives can be thought to be the mass-produced versions of abstract philosophies. With all due respect to everyone, that is probably all the abstraction that most human being can handle (or more probably – want to handle!) It is almost like getting the big thinking out of the way by subscribing to a ready-to-go, credulous and locally optimized construct of the meta-narrative on offer (and focusing on earning livelihood, having sex and drinking beer).

That of course does leave the individuals rather vulnerable to vested interests and power structures. In the era of mass media this danger is even more acute. As it turns out the vested interests themselves are not quite almighty and in charge of creation and perpetration of the meta-narratives (in general; however, notable and rare exceptions exist). However the awareness of the malleability of the society’s mood in light of the meta-narrative gives these elements the ability to construct their convenient versions of truth – sometimes going all the way to manufacture them. Noam Chomsky’s "Manufacturing of Consent" is probably a similar realization.


Siddarth said...

I find myself agreeing with most of your thought process as expressed in the blog - as in how these so called meta-narratives are and have been shaping the world around us.

However, I have a slightly different understanding of how the mind is shaped and what is possible therein. I do agree broadly that its the gazillion external impressions that are primarily shaping our minds. However, modern neuro-scientists etc tell us that an average human being uses only around 8-10% of the 'mind'. This brings me to the question - is it possible to activate and use more of one's mind? If so it maybe possible to enhance the ability to perceive, understand and manage or navigate the world around us - it may even shift by several orders of magnitude for we cant assume that all the latent capacity of the mind will be linear...

Swapnil Pawar said...

That is quite interesting indeed. I think the hypothesis of inadquate utilization of mind's capacity should be based on experimentation. The trouble of course is that any experiment in this domain will have to be necessarily subjective. Unless of course if we agree on some measures of capacity utilization a priori and then check the effect of any progressive intervention through that.

Siddarth said...

This surely is very difficult to prove either way.
However, AIMS has been conducting intensive research on people practising Shambhavi (taught at Inner Engineering program). Recently the research team sought a meeting with Sadhguru to present their findings to him. They told him that they have observed a phenomenally higher (than is common) coherence in the left and right brains of these people. When asked what effect is this likely to have on these practitioners these scientists were actually almost afraid to voice their real thoughts. The inferences potentially being so revolutionary that they were afraid of being declared pariahs by the 'scientific community'!!!

The results of another research were published at (unable to paste the table here)
70% and 80% of the respondents said that they experienced improvement in Concentration and Mental clarity. We may not be able to link this to increased usage of the latent mental capacity but even this is of significant importance in our lives