02 June 2005

Little narratives

Postmodernism rejects universalising theories – which Lyotard terms “grand narratives” – and other sources of authoritarianism. Derrida’s deconstruction, Foucault’s genealogical enquiries and Irigaray’s difference feminism are part of a pervasive scepticism and dissent. Lyotard considers that “little narratives” are the most inventive way of creating knowledge and that they help to break down modernity’s grand narratives. The primary means of enquiry in postmodernism is to reveal paradoxes, instabilities and simulacra. Despite the ideological dangers of postmodernism – Jameson’s idea of its collusion with late capitalism – what is attractive is the postmodernist destabilization of pretensions to hold truth and authority. In these respects, postmodernism is a cultural movement doing what poetry has always done.

Lyotard meant his little narratives to refer to micro-political alliances – temporary, loose coalitions of people over single issues – but the point works equally with “little narratives” in a literary sense. Poetry, after all, is full of slippery fragments and marginalized, nomadic voices. It admits no stability of words and meanings; there is no core identity, no essence, only what is realized in performance, only what is constructed. Moreover, the act of writing is always foregrounded in verse, so we recognize the artifice involved in expression. After all, all poems are open, readerly texts.