The Rise and Fall of the Grand Narrative

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know how frequently I lament the increasing specificity required of academic writing, and how it threatens to render the profession obsolete due to lack of readership or general interest in the subject matter. My thoughts were echoed in a recent book review which, in discussing the life of Hugh Trevor-Roper, a prominent historian, remarked that he could never be the great academic he wanted to be – an E.P. Thompson, or a Thomas Macauley, or an Edward Gibbon – because of two key factors. The first was the passing of the “grand narrative” approach to history, which is now seen as unprofessional, or worse, imperialistic in the Marxist teleological sense. The second was a result of his being British, and, as the article notes, “By Trevor-Roper’s day … Britain had become too insignificant to provide the subject of a grand narrative of progress in the style of Macaulay.”  The only nation that could conceivably produce historians claiming to write the story of its own empire today would be the United States, and those who do are usually right-wing polemicists who garner little respect in academic circles.

It’s true that the grand narrative has its drawbacks, as I’ve written before. Huge swaths of history that don’t fit in can be glossed over or ignored entirely in order to weave a tight story. And the grand narrative remains a common way for writers to (consciously or otherwise) impose a single, usually Western, trajectory upon world events that can be interpreted as modern intellectual imperialism. But it remains an anchoring lens through which historical events can be contextualized and patterns examined, and is usually more interesting than a narrow study. So what has caused the violent turn away from the grand narrative?  Is it justified?

A friend recently pointed out that there are very few “Big Ideas” that have currency these days. We don’t talk about space travel, he said, or the rise and fall of empires. Economics lacks an overriding vision and is instead a variety of Keynesian-inflected theories cobbled together to form a semi-coherent inclination toward free(ish) markets and large(ish) state interventions when necessary. Perhaps climate change is one, though there are so many complex theories about causes in play (and its existence has yet to be generally accepted) that it is all but ruled out as a narrative through which disparate events can be tied together. The other candidate might be religion, particularly the “war of the worlds” we’re apparently experiencing with Islam and Christianity today, but faith is as splintered now as it has ever been, with more atheists who believe nothing at all than ever before in history.

The fragmentation isn’t just in the realm of ideas. I noticed on an architectural tour in Chicago recently that there is no one “contemporary” style. There were many buildings that could easily be identified as Art Deco, with their long vertical columns and set back centre sections, and others that could be linked to the modern, “international” style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with their simplicity and emphasis on the visible structural elements. But there is no definitive style now, no era. It is the same in music: the diversity of popular music, from electronic to hip hop to country to countless others, defies synthesis.  There are no easily identifiable cultural movements that in themselves define our era.

Perhaps we cannot see it because we are living it, just as anybody who dressed like Molly Ringwald in the 80s couldn’t see that side ponytails, scrunchies and denim jackets were fads. It may be the fault of historians and the popular memory makers who like neatly to sew the outliers into overriding themes and trends to simplify the work of remembrance. They have caused us to expect clean breaks and periods of time that come with labels like “baroque” or “pre-modern” or “inter-war,” with all the pieces fitting together logically and with teleological paths. And periodization in history can never happen until there is a general acceptance that an age has concluded, so perhaps we are just in limbo, in the midst of an era.

But I suspect it is greater than that. The last twenty years have seen an explosion of individuality in every facet of life, and widespread access to the Internet has only hastened the splintering, as there is no need to subscribe to a prevailing trend in order to be successful. With the end of the Cold War, perhaps the greatest organizing principle of the “post-war era,” countries that had previously existed (on the international stage) as part of blocs now had the ability to act independently and assert their uniqueness. And while governments before 1989 could ascribe actions to the Cold War while it was occurring, now they find new motives and rationales for their policies, with no overriding global aim. With the failed communist experiments in the East, we also seem to have shaken the hold of Marxism as an intellectual prism through which we organize world events, but no broad new ideology has emerged to replace it. Academics have instead been forced to try (and sometimes reject) all the “post-” movements, like postmodernism, postfeminism, and postcolonialism.

These are theories that emphasize relativity, and downplay the influence of one idea, nation, or movement. There is a call for new nation- and event-specific timelines, and a recognition that there are few globally accepted eras, as each country has its own significant dates and events. Thus, the broadly-defined “imperial age” to a British historian could range from the sixteenth century through the 1960s or even today (as is often the case), while the “imperial age” for one of its colonies, like Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, would range from the arrival of David Livingstone in 1855 to independence in 1964.

It seems then that the overriding ideology of today might be that there is no overriding ideology. Is this a temporary blip, or a trend toward ever-increasing factionalization? What would a modern Big Idea even look like? What do you think will be the next big movement? Are we already seeing the roots of it? Post your thoughts!


I thought I’d include some pictorial references to the architecture I was talking about, which spawned the idea behind this post…

Art Deco Architecture

Art Deco Architecture in Chicago

All photos courtesy of the lovely and talented Alice Zhao.

Modern Architecture in Chicago

Mies Van der Rohe and the Trump Tower - no overriding themes!

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