Greatly Exaggerated

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives…  The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements–narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the inter section of many of these.

-Jean-Francois Lyotard The Postmodern Condition

While there are plenty of ways of reading Lyotard’s death sentence of the meta-narrative, I’ve been rethinking my own interpretation of Lyotard’s work lately. Obviously, our collective skepticism and the resulting collapse of grand narrative it has brought about has had its benefits, but I’m more inclined to pessimism in all things: I find Delillo’s paranoid insistence that the proliferation of micro-narratives creates an incommensurate cross chatter between an infinite array of disembodied voices more compelling than other people’s belief that this very same proliferation represents a liberation from thousands of years of oppression. It’s not that I don’t think that the latter is true; it’s just that I’m a little sick in the head. So, in that spirit, I’m going to take this time to riff a bit on my own thoughts on the death of the meta-narrative.

While Lyotard’s work is prescient enough, I don’t think it completely anticipates the effect of the Internet on knowledge production and dissemination.  The problem facing anyone looking for some bit of knowledge in the postmodern era is not that she will constantly find herself shut out by—or butting her head against—some uniform monolith, but rather that the amount of information available will simply overwhelm her ability to make sense of anything. In this sense, we all resemble Nicholas Branch, the CIA analyst in Delillo’s Libra, stuck in his office with a mass of files on the Kennedy assassination and a host of competing theories and explanations churning uselessly in his head:

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century. He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren Report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Just like us, Branch has all the information at the tip of his fingers, and just like us, the only sense he can make of it is fragmentary and subjective, each piece of information bleeding incoherently into the next, with none seemingly more or less important than the other. In short, Branch has micro-narratives in spades. Long disabused of any belief in an overarching explanation, he is free to swim (and drown) in the ocean of competing and mutually incompatible explanations that constitute the entirety of his life and work.

But I think there’s a bigger problem here than merely an existential crisis. The overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips leads to worse things than mere confusion. If we are indeed faced with an infinite or near infinite amount of information, then, even if we take just a small slice of that information and construct a narrative with it, it too will seem infinite. Worse yet, while the meta-narratives of yore were mere illusions, and there were cracks in them—and points of resistance to them—in all their incarnations (as the wealth of current scholarship concerned with recovering these counter discourses easily reveals), these new meta-illusory micro-narratives are more totalizing than the older grand narratives could ever hope to be.  They maintain the same illusion of depth that the older grand narratives had, but they also lack any noticeable points of resistance.

My last blog briefly touched on hyperlinks, and I think they are an interesting outgrowth of this very phenomenon. While you would think that hyperlinks would provide an interesting opportunity for a writer to insert contrasting points of view into his argument or to complicate his writing, the opposite is generally the case. Usually, hyperlinks serve as nothing but a chain of assent meant to provide a façade of depth to a writer’s argument and to back his ideas up with a sea of confirmation, and each click of the mouse on the reader’s part is no different than a nod of the head.

This is just one way in which this problem manifests itself. In the realm of conspiracy rhetorics, the problems are even worse. Not only can the consumer of these types of discourses be sucked in by the illusion of depth provided by the multiplicative function of the Internet on knowledge sources, but she could also encounter various people on discussions boards from across the world who agree with her on everything. She could easily begin to think that this slice of constructed narrative isn’t just one among many competing narratives, but that it is the narrative, the one narrative that constitutes the whole of reality. It is this complete lack of resistance that one can encounter in these narratives that makes them so effective—not only do they appear to constitute the whole world but they also appear to represent the consensus of the whole world.

In some sense, you might say that Lyotard greatly exaggerated the death of the meta-narrative. While an ideal reading of Lyotard’s text would allows us to talk about the ways in which the fracturing of grand narratives allows us a greater ability to express ourselves and to come to terms with the limited nature of our knowledge, it appears that the opposite could be the case. And we certainly aren’t gripped by the paralyzing terror that Branch feels when staring into the inchoate and roiling abyss of total knowledge. Instead, we are confident in our opinions—we can easily find infinite confirmation for our parochial views—and this confidence allows us to act without worrying about what others think or about opposing points of view. We can  then act brutally and decisively in the public sphere—after all, the whole world is on our side.

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