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Essays, Justice, States of Exception

The End of “Grand Narratives” and America’s “Spiritual Recession”

The “postmodern condition,” as Jean-François Lyotard designated it in 1979, is an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” That definition has been recited interminably by those grasping for a familiar sound-byte to encapsulate the significance of postmodernity. In the last few decades it has acquired overtones of a playful cultural experimentalism that has somehow outgrown the need for authoritative accounts of the meaning and purpose of human history.

The “postmodern condition,” as Jean-François Lyotard designated it in 1979, is an “incredulity toward metanarratives.”

That definition has been recited interminably by those grasping for a familiar sound-byte to encapsulate the significance of postmodernity. In the last few decades it has acquired overtones of a playful cultural experimentalism that has somehow outgrown the need for authoritative accounts of the meaning and purpose of human history.

Furthermore, Lyotard’s expression “metanarrative” – or the more common equivalent “grand narrative,” often invoked by Marxists – has too often been associated with the concept of ideology.

Metanarratives are “totalizing” accounts of human experience that camouflage certain perverse, or predatory, interests behind ideal constructs and lofty sentiments that divert our gaze from the real social and economic circumstances demanding our attention.

As Lyotard himself admitted, the grand narratives of the modern era purported to be emancipatory tales designed to motivate the oppressed to revolutionary action.

But in the wake of Auschwitz and the gulags and the devastation wrought by two world wars that were themselves wars fueled by clashing grand narratives, the collapse of these narratives was a good thing, Lyotard hinted.

True emancipation was a product of postmodernity, because what Francis Fukuyama would a decade later proclaim as the “end of history” – i.e., the new global flourishing of a worldwide liberal, consumerist democracy – would unleash personal freedoms and full-bodied opportunities for self-realization that humankind had hitherto never thought possible.

One did not need grand narratives anymore to tell the big story. It was now all about everyone’s personal story in some manner. The failure of grand narratives marked the birth of identity politics and obsessional eudaemonism as well as frantic personal branding.

But in light of countless and painfully convergent news stories about brutal factional struggles, increasing social chaos, the breakdown of international order, and a sense of ever spreading violence and mayhem which no one could seemingly control any longer, it may be time to raise Lyotard’s second question, which he raised in The Postmodern Condition: “Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?”

The answer to this question appears, unfortunately, to be: “it’s not at all clear.”

In the run-up to the recent Fourth of July weekend in America, when the celebrations were supposed to be about the founding of “one nation indivisible”, a number of prominent columnists used the occasion to rue what we might call the new “grand malaise” as well as intimations of prophetic doom. The most sensational of these pieces was Jim Sleeper’s article in Salon entitled “We, the people are violent and filled with rage.”

After reciting a litany of failures of the vision of the architects of the American project (i.e., a prosperous and well-governed minimal state founded on public “virtue”) from the corruption of politics by big money and a colossal communal fixation with mindless violence in both the entertainment industry and the gun culture, Sleeper takes his own “grand” theoretical leap and opines: “they’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.”

Sleeper, of course, is talking about the grand narrative of American exceptionalism, or at least version that survived for the most part through the end of the last millennium.

He is not referencing the neo-con variant where American military “shock and awe” must be used strategically to guarantee the grand narrative of personal liberty and democracy for all, even for those societies – such as most Middle Eastern ones – where it is often taken as a type of foreign contagion to be resisted with maximal jihadist zeal rather than as an emancipatory formula for a long-suffering population under the spiked boots of dictators.

On the contrary, he is referencing a certain romanticized version of American history, supposedly ingrained in the revolutionary ethos of 1776 itself where, as Robert Bellah put in his era-defining book Habits of the Heart (1985), “Americans have sought in the ideal of community a shared trust to anchor and complete the desire for a free and fulfilled self.”

It is because of the utter destitution of this founding grand narrative of the republic, a concern that preoccupied Bellah himself throughout his life, as well as many others, after the Watergate scandal Nixon administration, that we are in such a grand mess today, according to Sleeper.

Like Sleeper, New York Times columnist David Brooks, writing the week before, notes the grim erosion of the same grand narrative. He contends that even though we seem to be slowly climbing our way out of the long economic slump in America, we remain in a “spiritual recession.”

The spiritual recession is the direct out come of our failed faith in the grand narrative of universal democracy, even though that faith itself seemed victorious when the Soviet Union fell in 1991.

“The democratic gospel was both lofty and realistic. It had a high historic mission, but it was based on the idea that biblical morality is necessary precisely because people are selfish and shortsighted, capitalism is necessary because economies are too complicated to understand and plan; democracy is necessary because concentrated power is always dangerous, no matter how seductive it seems in the short term.”

Brooks himself relies on the very eloquent, Cassandra-like testimonies of well-known political theorist Mark Lilla in The New Republic.


As with the other two writers, Lilla blames the crackup on the hollowing out of the narrative of universal democracy. Yet Lilla regards the crisis not so much as a loss of faith, but its replacement by a more insidious and seductive form of belief that represents, in effect, a new ideology. Lilla explains ideology as something that “holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality.”

This new ideology he names “libertarianism,” though he is not simply talking about the well-known political variety visibly incarnated in the national political movement drawn from the writings of Ayn Rand and associated with the father-and-son figures of Ron and Rand Paul.

Lilla is talking about a general state of mind. He even goes so far to say that it is not really even an ideology at all (it is, in fact, what he calls a “dogma”), because all ideologies require their own versions of grand narratives –e.g., Christian providentialism, socialism, fascism, or democratic universalism – that seek to make sense out of an provide a larger explanation for the vagaries, frustrations, and underlying forces of history.

It is a dogma that “sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds its adherents to its effects in that world.” Libertarianism is the cheap and disingenuous knock-off of liberalism, both in its classic and contemporary sense.

“Libertarianism’s dogmatic simplicity explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it: small-government fundamentalists on the American right, anarchists on the European and Latin American left, democratization prophets, civil liberties absolutists, human rights crusaders, neoliberal growth evangelists, rogue hackers, gun fanatics, porn manufacturers, and Chicago School economists the world over.

The common thread, according to Lilla, is the new libertarian’s celebration of the end of grand narratives without any serious, or thoughtful attempt, to answer the second part of the question posed by Lyotard three-and-a-half decades ago.

“The libertarian age is an illegible age” that has spawned “a new kind of hubris” that lures us into thinking “that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our ‘democratic values’ and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well.”

Of course a libertarian democracy is the polar opposite of a communitarian democracy. And if we take heed of the founding fathers’ assumption that any functioning democracy (one that gives the lie to the ancient prejudice that empowering the demos would inevitably lead to anarchy) must be grounded in a substantial commitment to “public virtue” cemented by certain shared religious values and forms of transcendental reverence and obligation, then these op-ed Jeremiahs are more perceptive that we would care to admit.


At the same time, these kinds of warnings about the loss of grand narratives are really nothing new. They have been going on long before Lyotard, and in many ways they reflect the preponderance of the sentiments of Friedrich Nietzsche, that chronically misunderstood prophet of the postmodern, who had his own apocalyptic premonitions regarding the long-term outcomes of the ultimate grand anti-narrative, “the death of God,” which all too many of his acolytes mistakenly interpret as a simple sage of human liberation.

Zarathustra proclaimed that once God was dead, the mysterious and in some ways terrifying “overman” would then live, not the smug, corporate-cubicle-habituated, Starbucks-swilling, much-too-educated, Slate-reading, self-appointed little emperors of “tolerance” and “coolness” (present day, slightly more sophisticated, versions of Nietzsche’s “last man”) that instantiate everything Lilla is talking about.

Unfortunately, every fifteen years ago or so (starting perhaps with Christopher Lasch’s best-selling Culture of Narcissism that appeared in English the same year as Lyotard’s book in French) we find a new crop of Matthew Arnoldish critics who mourn our cultural adriftness and the abandonment of cultural and intellectual moorings. The news cycle has as much to do with it as anything.

But an answer to Lyotard’s question is still very much on the front burner. And Nietzsche’s dark vision of the inevitability of “nihilism” after the death of God, not a pomo-ish paradise of self-validating, pseudo-liberated “subjects” well-disciplined by their paleo-diets and deeply moved by the prevalent gospel of a consciously embraced, feel-good, properly politically progressive, non-Christianity ritually enacted over skinny mochas and pumpkin tarts every Sunday morning, still needs to be confronted.

The irony is that the sworn enemies of the democratic West (think ISIS in the Middle East) are not only leveraging the power of grand narratives, but effectively using new technologies to inscribe these messages in the minds of friends and foes alike.

The recent proclamation by ISIS of a “caliphate” carved out of territory consisting of remote villages, provincial cities, and deserted outposts of the retreating armies of the central governments in Iraq and Syria was less a political coup than a brilliant media stunt, inspiring and energizing jihadists and jihadist wanna-bes from Mosul to Marakesh with the theatrical claim that the long-lost power center of the once glorious Medieval Muslim empire had manifested again finally on earth.

It has the same effect as if Jews had rebuilt the long-decimated Jerusalem temple, then rallied orthodox believers to show how this unexpected turn of events were living proof that the ancient narrative of God’s providential and triumphal role for the Jews as Zionist millennialists had been true all along.

Concerning ISIS, Foreign Policy magazine has analyzed how such a “barbaric medieval caliphate” is “so much better at social media than Washington,” particularly when it comes to reviving grand narratives.

It may be time to reconsider the true costs what our massive cultural abandonment of grand narratives (I would prefer the phrase “universalistic theodicies” a la Kant, Hegel, and the German idealists) in the last half century, despite our disenchantment with and discernment of the hypocrisies of the old ones, are beginning to bear.

From a theological standpoint, it might even be a good idea to reconsider and update the kind of historical thinking one finds in Augustine’s City of God, penned after the downfall of the only civilization then known.

As Proverbs 29:18 so famously declares, “where there is no vision, the people perish” (NIV=” Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint”). That describes fairly well the quandary to which Lyotard was alluding.

The second part of the proverb, however, offers something of a remedy: “But blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.”

Perhaps the “Keynesian” solution to Brooks’ “spiritual recession” is a heavy and sustained stimulus that revs up our cultural, intellectual, and moral economy with the “instruction” of such wisdom.

One thought on “The End of “Grand Narratives” and America’s “Spiritual Recession”

  1. Hmm, Jim Sleeper in the same choir with David Brooks and Mark Lilla, bemoaning the loss of an American I exception a lost, civic- republican grand narrative? Although Sleeper definitely regrets the loss of a civic faith that perhaps we should never held in the first place, he attributes the loss far more cannily to forces that Brooks assiduously ignores and that Lilla consistently downplays. I’m glad that you linked Sleeper’s long piece so that someone, somewhere may notice this difference and see why it matters.
    BTW, your line about the smug, Starbuck’s-swilling, Slate-reading, pseudo-cool Ivy Leaguers is right on, as is most of your post, right up to and including Augustine, to which I’d add only a dash of Niebuhr.
    –Jim Sleeper

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