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All Meta-Narratives are Dead – Except One.

Adrian Heuberger: All Meta-Narratives are Dead Except One, published in Insight

(Newsletter of the International Banknote Designers Association), N°5, May 2013

The death of all (Western) meta-narratives

In 1887, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed, in his work “The Gay Science” (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), the death of God. Humans had empowered themselves and replaced God with the concepts of Enlightenment. In 1968, the French writer Roland Barthes complained about another death: the death of the author (in an essay of the same title: La mort de l’auteur). The meaning of a text was no longer constituted solely by the biography of a writer – as book catalogues still try to persuade us – but mainly by its history after publication. And this history is not determined by the author, but mainly by her or his readers. In 1979, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard announced, in his book “The Postmodern Condition” (La condition postmoderne), the death of all (western) meta-narratives which he also chose to call “grand narratives” (les grand narratives).

In most cases of the past, meta-narratives started with some specific singular value rendered in terms of absolutes and merged into a password, e.g. that there is a divine being that gives unifying meaning to the world, emphasising the value of (both religious and political) unification under – or even dependence on – one single principle (this is the pre-modern view); or Immanuel Kant’s famous “Enlightenment is man’s emergence (Ausgang) from his self-imposed immaturity” (in his essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?), emphasising the exact opposite value of liberty by emancipation through reason (this is the modern view).


Is the concept of values dead too?

However, in some contemporary postmodern societies that claim to have overcome both the pre-modern and the modern view, and are therefore characterised by being postmodern (lat. ‘post’ for ‘after’), people react with scepticism when they are confronted with values rendered in terms of absolutes. Instead, they prefer values that are rendered relative to a person’s current circumstances. The concept of values standing alone, independent from everyday life, i.e. the concept of non-relative values, is outmoded and therefore dead. Values appear and disappear relative to the many moods and trends of time.

However, what is only valuable under certain circumstances and – as we have to conclude – is valueless under others, i.e. what sometimes is a value and sometimes is not, can it still be called a value? Or, is the concept of value something that is wrong from the bottom up and therefore ought to be abandoned completely? (This abandonment of the concept of value could somehow be similar to the abandonment of value judgments in some progressive forms of open discussions.)


If the concept of values is dead too, ouroboros bites its own tail.

If the concept of value is to be abandoned completely, but for the sake of – well, for the sake of what? What is the X, for whose sake would it be worth attacking the concept of value at its roots? The ouroboros (a snake) bites its own tail. For, by completing the X in the sentence above, we infiltrate a purpose or a value in a proposition, which demands that there ought to be no value at all. All values may be dead, but the value X, for whose sake all values ought to be dead, paradoxically is not. And even if X remains unspoken (so that the ouroboros doesn’t bite its tail), X is still claimed when saying that all values ought to be dead (for, the meaning of the ought cannot be understood without the implication of a future whereat the ought is aiming and wherein the ought is fulfilled – and this is X).


All meta-narratives are dead except one: the belief in money.

Isn't it odd that the geographic region (mostly the west) that seems to cling to the belief in money most, coincides with the region (mostly the west again) that claims to be the most postmodern one, supposedly having emancipated itself from all beliefs (meta-narratives) of any sort whatsoever. Thus, looking at the west, we get confused for all meta-narratives seem to be dead – except one: the belief in money.


Two sides of the same coin

Having emancipated itself from all meta-narratives, but still clinging to one, is a contradiction. A contradiction is a relation between two conflicting relata. In the contradiction given, (i) one relatum is the postmodern claim that all meta-narratives ought to be dead and (ii) the other relatum is the mocking presence of one meta-narrative that still dominates postmodernity: the belief in money. Having consulted Georg Simmel’s “Philosophy of Money” (Philosophie des Geldes, first published in Leipzig, Germany in 1900), we would like to show that money is a medium that is somehow capable of unifying the two conflicting relata. Money seems to be a power that is powerful enough to unify (i) the emancipative power of postmodernity and (ii) the powers of belief of modern or pre-modern times. With regard to money, postmodern emancipation and pre-modern belief somehow form two sides of the same coin.

The textual basis for the following presentation of some of Simmel’s arguments is “Philosophy of Money”, 3rd edition by David Frisby, published by the Taylor & Francis e-Library in 2005.


Simmel: (i) With money all values become relative.

(i) Let us start with the first relatum of the contradiction: the emancipative powers of money that vanquish meta-narratives. For this, we consult the following text passage: “If freedom means only obeying one’s own laws, then the distance between property and its owner that is made possible by the money form (Geldform) of returns provides a hitherto unheard-of (unerhört) freedom” (p.335). Money establishes distance. But unlike other theories (such as Karl Marx’ term “alienation”), this distance is not considered to be negative; indeed Simmel puts it on a level with “freedom” (ibid.) and this cannot be misinterpreted for Simmel clarifies its meaning as self-determination in the first part of the sentence. Money rather restores autonomy to the individuals of a society. The atoms (individuals) of the society get stronger, whereas the society as a whole gets weaker. Simmel calls this process – again positively understood – the “atomization (Atomisierung) of the individual person” (p.344). With the parts being stronger than the whole, the whole loses its former cohesion and related hierarchical structures. The social atoms are released from their embedding in these structures, which is identified by Simmel as the “differentiation (Differenzierung) of elements in society” (p.352). The society vibrates at its bottom. The atoms dominate in all possible models of characterising the newly formed social biotope. What in former times could have been characterised as being socio-cultural common ground is now relativised by every single atom. What had been the ideal of a whole society is now downgraded to an individual opinion out of many others. Former principles that marked the uniformity of a society are now converted into principles that emphasise the relativity of all principles. Autocracy turns into democracy, collectivism into individualism and the pursuit of a single meta-narrative into pluralism.

But also here, there is another side to the coin: The big questions of life can no longer be delegated to some sort of community. The individual is thrown back to itself. And we guess that this must be the reason why many people in postmodern societies feel isolation (consider the success of new social media), constant overstraining (consider the many new lifestyle diseases as a consequence of this) and a decrease of solidarity (because everyone is consumed by the care for her- or himself – in Michel Foucault’s words: souci de soi).

Due to money, the postmodern age succeeded in shattering all meta-narratives into the relativity of pluralistic views. But how can we understand that there is one meta-narrative that has survived this relativisation? Why is it, that in postmodern societies all meta-narratives seem to be dead – except one? And with this question we reach the second relatum.


Simmel: (ii) Money becomes the absolute expression of all relative values.

(ii) The second relatum of the contradiction exposed earlier in this text is the pre-modern way of clinging to a meta-narrative. In (i) we came to see that money acted as the catalyst for converting uniformity into diversity. What had been valuable to the society as a whole is relativised by its individuals: While for some individuals something is valuable, for another, the same thing may not be (of course this also applies to goods). Something is no longer valuable for itself or in itself, something becomes valuable only by entering a relation to some individuals that become attracted to it, and are willing to make some investments in order to acquire it. And what are these investments? Usually they consist of energy, focus and above all – money. Thus, money becomes the expression of how relative a value is. “[T]he significance (Sinn) of money is to become the clear expression of this relativity” (p.125).

Being the common expression of all relative values entails that the expression itself must place itself above every relative value. “Money serves as an absolute intermediary between all commodities” (p.176). The original German version of this sentence is even more explicit concerning this: Den Dienst, als absolute Zwischeninstanz über allen Einzelprodukten zu stehen, leistet das Geld […]. If money succeeds in placing itself above all relative values, then money simultaneously escapes relativity per se, for it is no longer something relative but has become something absolute. Whereas the value of all other things is relative, the value of money becomes the (only) absolute value, or in Simmel’s words: Money becomes “the absolute means and thereby becoming psychologically the absolute purpose for most people, which makes it, in a strange way, a symbol (Sinnbild)” (p.232).

Concerning former unifying principles, like meta-narratives, money brought diversity into them and made them relative (as we have seen in (i)). Concerning itself, money brought “unity out of diversity” (p.198) by making itself the general expression of all relative values, which Simmel calls “the growing spiritualization (Vergeistigung) of money” (p.198) And so come to the end of our (ii) second analysis and, with this end, we are back to modern or pre-modern dimensions of a single principle, a “unity” (ibid.) that enthrones itself and unifies everything that the emancipative powers of money in (i) have tried to shatter into a multiplicity. We have reached the dimension of a meta-narrative that gives unifying meaning to the world.


Is the death of all meta-narratives a meta-narrative Itself? 

(i) + (ii) The initial point of our journey with Simmel was our confusion that (looking at the west) money apparently shelters two conflicting relata: (i) the emancipative power of postmodernity claiming to have overcome all sorts of belief (meta-narratives) and (ii) the powers of belief that make us cling to money to such an extent that we believe everyone else clings to it, too. Simmel’s argument for (i) was that money provided a “unheard-of” (p.335) autonomy to the individuals (the social atoms) so that, what used to be considered as an absolute value for everyone (i.e. a meta-narrative), was now downgraded to something which the individual judged autonomously as to whether it were valuable or not and finally converted it into a merely relative value. Simmel’s argument for (ii) was that the relativity of all values demanded unification into an expression through which the relativeness of a peculiar value could be measured, therefore imposing unifying meaning (the expressibility through money) on what in (i) was claimed to be relative and therefore non-unifiable.

Postmodernity claims, having downgraded former absolute values into merely relative values of what it is questionable if they are values at all (as we mentioned in the opening). If we are not allowed to say that relative values are no values at all, we can surely argue that relative values somehow transport the understanding of values being the least valuable. And as the story unfolded, money adjusted its expression to the same level of the least valuable and in doing so – by descending to the level of the least valuable – money paradoxically ascended to the level of the most valuable: to the realm of the absolute (by becoming the absolute expression of all that had been relativised).

The crucial question therefore is: Relativising the absolute (as postmodernity actually claims to have succeeded in doing), does it not unavoidably import a new absolute, for we always need a medium through which we can express how relative things are; and without which, we are not capable of even knowing that things are relative at all? The postmodern claim that all meta-narratives are dead and that all absolute values are shattered into relative ones – is this claim possibly a meta-narrative itself?