I have recently been reading through Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. In it, he puts forth the theory that a database has replaced the Grand Narratives of modernity. He’s dealing with a lot of theory on postmodernity that has a long history of discourse by other philosophers and theorists, but he sums up the basic ideas quite succinctly:
[In modernity] Various systems were consolidated for the purpose of organizing members of society into a unified whole: this movement was a precondition for the management of society. These systems became expressed, for instance, intellectually as the ideas of humanity and reason, politically as the nation-state and revolutionary ideologies, and economically as the primacy of production. Grand narrative is a general term for these systems… Modernity was ruled by the grand narrative. In contrast, in postmodernity the grand narratives break down and the cohesion of the social entirety rapidly weakens. (p.26)
Azuma’s contribution to the discussion is to propose that, rather than the Grand Narratives in the deep inner layer of meaning going away and only leaving the surface layer (individual works of literature or culture) with nothing to order them, they have rather been replaced by a “database” of “moe-elements” (moe yōso pronounced moh-eh), or elements that evoke emotion (p.40).* Each surface work, therefore, is a combination of various elements in the database, which he calls a “grand non-narrative.” Importantly:
The major difference between this double-layer structure [database] and the modern tree model is that, with the double-layer structure, the agency that determines the appearance that emerges on the surface outer layer resides on the surface itself rather than in the deep inner layer; i.e., it belongs on the side of the users who is doing the “reading up,” rather than with the hidden information itself. In the world of the modern tree model, the surface outer layer is determined by the deep inner layer, but in the world of the postmodern database model, the surface outer layer is not determined by the deep inner layer; the surface reveals different expressions at those numerous moments of “reading up.” (p.32)
I find this model quite apt and very interesting. Azuma is mainly exploring the Japanese “geek” (otaku) subculture, but I think this theory is broadly applicable. I can’t explain Azuma’s whole argument here, so read the book if you’re interested. What I want to do here is to propose one small addendum: rather than Grand Narratives simply being supplanted by the Grand Non-Narrative of the database, in postmodernity Grand Narratives themselves are incorporated into the database as moe-elements. In other words, the Grand Narratives that used to provide meaning and structure to the world (political ideologies, national identities, etc.) now no longer serve that function, but they are still around as elements that can evoke emotion in the database, and small narratives can pull them out of the database and combine them with other moe-elements to evoke emotions in narrative consumers.
This would explain a lot about postmodern culture: we are moved by narratives about people who operate under Grand Narratives, even if those narratives hold no meaning for us, or have indeed been actively delegitimized. We can still be moved by a Civil War movie about someone bravely sacrificing his life for the Confederacy, even though the ideology of Confederacy (the Grand Narrative) is completely defunct as a source of meaning-making. We can be moved by Perchik’s devotion to Bolshevism in Fiddler on the Roof even though we (or at least most of us) don’t adhere to Bolshevism. We are moved by the way the characters of Downton Abbey cling to the old Grand Narrative of English class stratification even as we are glad that it was broken down.
Of course, some of this emotional response is simply to the moe-elements of “believing in something,” “having a cause” or “fighting for something.” It might seem that the content of the Grand Narrative itself is irrelevant. However, upon consideration it is clear that while everyone might be moved by those general moe-elements, someone from the US southeast will probably be more moved by that movie about a Confederate soldier than someone viewing in Japan, while someone from England will probably be more moved by Downton Abbey than someone from the US. The content of the Grand Narrative in these cases is indeed important.
So Grand Narratives haven’t gone away entirely, but have been incorporated into the database of moe-elements, and can be pulled from that database for incorporation into small narratives, but as elements that evoke emotion rather than sources of meaning and order.
While I think this is true, I also think the disposition of Grand Narratives is more dynamic and less final than that. Azuma writes persuasively about a generational gap; between those who grew up expecting Grand Narratives and later generations who grew up never expecting a Grand Narrative in the first place. I think this is astute, but I don’t think this social divide is limited to the generation gap and is probably more individual. Clearly there are some people for whom Grand Narratives are still a relevant source of meaning, whether they are an older generation who grew up with them or young people discovering them afresh on the Internet. Therefore, I think postmodernism (or perhaps what we will later call early postmodernism) is marked by a tug-of-war between Grand Narratives as Grand Narratives – that is, sources of meaning and order – and Grand Narratives as elements in the moe-database.
In other words, one of the principle cultural struggles of our time is not between the presence or absence, life or death of Grand Narratives. Everyone still understands and appreciates Grand Narratives. The struggle is between Grand Narratives as a source of meaning and purpose and Grand Narratives as merely another emotion-evoking cultural element.
*Some readers might be aware of the term moe; in the English-speaking world it has become known primarily as signifying attraction to young girls. However, Azuma here is using it in its wider context as any kind of evocation of emotion.