The Master Narrative
This morning I was reading in The Guardian an interview with Francois Pienaar the former captain of the 1995 World Cup champion South African rugby team. The occasion, of course, was the passing of Nelson Mandela, and the roles of these two men in shaping post-apartheid South Africa were recently highlighted in the film Invictus.
I found Pienaar’s recollections of the transformative event quite interesting, particularly his recollections of the deficiencies of the dominant or “master” narrative of the hide-bound Afrikaans community in which he was raised, and how this narrative defined, controlled, and regulated the perceptions of the Afrikaans community. There are important lessons here, not least of which is Nelson Mandela’s graciously declining to allow himself to be defined by that narrative and to perform the role assigned to him by that narrative.
Here is the relevant passage from the article,
In an interview with the Observer, Pienaar recalled the hardline white attitudes that shaped his childhood. “In my little world, I grew up in an Afrikaner community, went to an Afrikaner school, spoke only Afrikaans. Children were seen and not heard and you believed the publicity of the day,” he said. “Obviously the press told the stories that the ruling party of the day in particular wanted to be told.
“I remember when I heard Nelson Mandela’s name mentioned at barbecues or dinner parties, the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘bad man’ was an umbilical cord almost to his name. As a young kid I wish I’d had questions about it, but I never did. I just thought that guy’s maybe not a good guy, because sadly we didn’t engage with our parents.
“You didn’t ask questions like why black kids don’t go to school with you, why is it just all white? That’s how you grew up, which is very wrong and very sad. I wish I’d had the courage of conviction to ask questions, but I didn’t. It’s about exposure.”
It was only when Pienaar went to university on a sports scholarship that he found himself exposed to different cultures, speaking English and having debates about politics and the country’s future. “We’d just gone through 1985, a very dark year in South Africa’s history, so it was topical at university. There were talks and rumours about Mr Mandela being released and white South Africans in particular feared the worst.
“Many were very conservative South Africans who were stocking up on food, thinking it’s going to be Armageddon, civil warfare. I can understand that, not that I agreed with it. They feared that if this man who had been put in jail for 27 years, and was not handled particularly well as a prisoner, comes out, he’s going to be slightly peeved.
“What he says the nation will do. So if Mr Mandela came out of prison and said, ‘Listen, this is wrong, we’re taking over the country now by force,’ it would have been civil warfare. Then he came out and he didn’t. The conservative people were, ‘We’re just waiting for this to happen’. It never happened.”
Therein lies the greatness of Mandela. The realisation of the freedom of his own personality lies in the fact that he refused to play the expected role assigned to him by the official dominant (and domineering) narrative, or to remain circumscribed and imprisoned within that prescribed and fateful role. If Mandela today is considered a nearly “transcendent” figure it is because his “long walk to freedom” included his declining to play the role and function assigned to him by the master narrative.
So, I want to talk today about such “master narratives” as they pertain to what I have been calling “the foreign installation” — that part of the mind which is occupied territory, which does not belong to the individuality, but which prescribes identity, manages perception, interprets experience, and generally orients and locates the ego consciousness within time and space, history and society. This foreign installation with its master narrative is the puppet master, so to speak, or also what Freud called “superego”.
We have heard much about the post-modern condition as being “the end of the Grand Narrative”. The end of the Grand Narrative was announced by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge first published in 1979. The term “post-modern” itself dates from at least 1973, but even before that date there was a wide-spread sense of a “disturbance in the force”, so to speak — an uneasiness with the times that comes to expression after the First World War in W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming (1919) and even before then in Nietzsche’s announcement of “the death of God” in the 1880s. It was also expressed in the disillusionment of the intellectuals with the “Age of Reason” and the “Modern Project” after the events of 1914 – 1945. The term “post-Enlightenment” is, in fact, synonymous with the term “post-modern” and with notions of the end of the Grand Narrative.
I am, for example, currently reading a book by the German theologian Romano Guardini entitled The End of the Modern World, first published in German in 1956. In his book Guardini also laments the loss of a unifying description of the world and a common narrative of history that would orient the mind in time and space. This is two decades before Lyotard put a name to the problem and to the uneasiness of the times. Nietzsche, however, had foreseen the problem when he wrote “since Copernicus man has been rolling from the centre towards X”, and put the problem of our loss of all horizons and cardinal points in his parable of the Madman of the Marketplace in Beyond Good & Evil (1886),
“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Those who have dismissed post-modernism as a intellectual fad or fashion have simply not thought through the problem it addresses itself to clearly enough. Post-modernism didn’t invent the post-modern or post-Enlightenment condition. It simply recognised it and attempted to give voice to it, some more successfully than others.
And some of the most insightful observors of the condition of Late Modernity never even used the term “post-modern” at all, but recognised nonetheless the disintegrative dynamics at play in society during and after the World Wars. Among these, of course, Erich Kahler in The Tower and the Abyss, Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in Out of Revolution, Pitrim Sorokin in The Crisis of Our Age, and many others I have mentioned frequently before or have yet to discover (and into whose company I can now also admit Romano Guardini, even if I’m not particularly given to his theological concerns). Some of these observors are progressive or revolutionary and some of them are conservative or reactionary , and some are a mixture of both. They are all, nonetheless, in agreement of the essential problem — that the fragmentation, fracturing, atomisation, and disintegration of the Modern Era is the result of the disintegration of an overarching narrative of history and of a shared description of reality.
In that sense, we might also call this post-modern and post-Enlightenment condition “post-Universalist”. Any way one slices and dices it, however, the post-modern condition and the end of the Master Narrative points to the breakdown of “Universal Reason” itself, and therefore of the mental-rational structure of consciousness which characterised the Modern Era and the “Age of Reason”. The Tower of Babel revisited is the university become multiversity and “the thousand channel universe” of television. Both “the culture of narcissism” and “the end of the Grand Narrative” are symptoms of this fragmentation of the mental-rational universe, which is generally today called “nihilism”.
And, as Jean Gebser has confirmed, this fragmentation of the former Grand Narrative has both a negative and a positive dynamic or “double-movement”, this nihilism also being deemed a preparation of the soil for new growth towards what he calls “the irruption” of a new and more effective consciousness structure — the “integral consciousness”. And, to be sure, there are indications of that as well, so that the post-modern condition might also be considered the “antelucan” condition (ie, ante – lux, the state before the dawning of the light).
(Thanks to Sharon for sharing that wonderful word with me).
It isn’t the first time in history that a master narrative defining a civilisation or consciousness structure has disintegrated. When the Greeks announced that “the Great God Pan is dead!” it marked the end of “classical man” and of myth and the mythical consciousness. When the master narrative of Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire fractured into sect and schism, and into Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, this fracturing of the Master Narrative put an end to “Christendom” (and which was subsequently rebaptised “Europe” after the custom of the classical Greeks, attesting to the transition to a more secularised society. This change of name from “Christendom” to “Europa” is coincident with the transition from middle ages to modern era — and the reconstruction of a new “Grand Narrative” or world description centred not on Universal Faith, but on Universal Reason).
So we are in an age of transition, in which a new description and narrative of our collective and now planet-wide human experience of reality is being painstakingly assembled and reconstructed, even as the increasingly deficient old Grand Narrative, now become reactionary, fights against this change. For a new description and narrative of our experience of reality can be nothing but a restructuring of consciousness itself. A new structure of consciousness will reveal a new structure of reality, new faculties of consciousness, and new dimensions of possible human experience. “Master narratives” are always descriptions of the potentialities of a consciousness structure at any particular time, and which come to define a civilisational type, an “Age”, and the acceptable form of the human. For the purpose of any master narrative is to shape the human form in the image of the cosmos, however conceived that image may be.
That is why it is necessary to scrutinise closely all proposals for new (or old) master narratives, for such descriptions and narratives serve as recipes for producing and reproducing specific human types with particular consciousness structures and modes of perception. Some will be repressive, in that sense, and some will be emancipatory of human psychic resources hitherto undeveloped or undeployed. Some will be the products of sickness and Angst, some will be disguised will to power by new or old elites, and some will be the real deal, focussed on enhancing the health, the vitality and the broadening of the human experience, and of the fuller experience of being human.
The competition of propagandas presently, is often only for gaining a monopoly or universal control of human perception, consciousness, and intent (which is why it is called “perception management” these days. Remember, “branding” is for cattle). Some are reasonable and some are merely necromancy having no other aim but to enslave and subjugate. Some will counsel pathways that lead to light and some will counsel pathways that lead to darkness. But the battle for you mind is, at present, the name of the game, and the prize is dominion.
The best narrative of existence is the one you help to construct and tell, based on the authentic and real truths of your own life and experience. Those are, in Blake’s terms, the “golden builders” of the “New Jerusalem”.