A conversation with a friend ages ago collided with some stuff I’ve been musing on lately–thoughts still percolating on what all this has to do with solidarity and intersectionality and the circular firing squad–and this came out. In rather a typo-ridden rush, so thanks to Benny Blue for his fast and thorough proofread!
A while back—long enough ago that the rise of ethnonationalism was still worrying as opposed to horrifying—I was having an email exchange with a friend of mine about it and he raised a point that I couldn’t immediately argue: Ethnonationalists claim that ethnic divides are insurmountable and inevitably lead to (presumed violent) conflict. Isn’t multiculturalism a concession to the first half of that statement? Wouldn’t it be better to have a monoculture in which all association is purely voluntary and all identity is purely self-defined.
I reacted with visceral horror, but at the time couldn’t really formulate a counterargument beyond “No, that would be awful.”
Here, most of a year later, is that argument.
I’m going to start with some basic definitions from literary theory:
A story is a set of events: “The king died and the queen died.”
A plot is a set of events arranged in a sequence and given causal relationships: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”
A narrative is what’s left of a plot after you subtract out the story; it is the relationships between events without the events themselves.
Think of a plot as a kind of structure, objects in space supported by a scaffolding. The scaffold is the narrative; the objects it holds in place and connects to one another are the events making up the story. The same events—the same story—becomes a very different plot when you change the narrative: “The king died of poisoning, and then the queen died of hanging.” The first plot implies the queen mourned the king so deeply she perished; the second that she murdered him and was executed for the crime. Or a third narrative, different from the second only in a single word: “The king died of poisoning, and then the queen died of hanging herself.” Now we are back to the implications of the first narrative, yet the basic events—the “facts” of the story—never changed.
The Postmodern Condition
In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s seminal book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, used the concept of narrative as a framework through which to examine the broader world of human thought. He argued that all knowledge works the same way that literature does; that is, any knowledge system consists of two kinds of knowledge: positive knowledge (which is analogous to story) and narrative knowledge (which is analogous, as the name implies, to narrative). Positive knowledge consists of the facts and only the facts; narrative knowledge is what gives those facts meaning, by connecting and organizing them, placing them in relationships with one another. So, for example, if we think of a field of science as a knowledge system, the positive knowledge consists of the raw data, the experimental results or field observations, while the narrative knowledge consists of the models used to interpret that data.
Lyotard argued that the general trend of the 20th century was a trend away from grand narratives to petite narratives (also called metanarratives and micronarratives, respectively). A grand narrative is a broad, organizing idea, that is (or presents itself as being) universally applicable, true for all people in all places and times. By contrast, a micronarrative is confined to a single system of knowledge, and does not claim universality. Grand narratives span an entire culture; micronarratives exist within a single community. Modernism prized and sought after grand narratives: “All stories boil down to the Hero’s Journey.” “Everything in the universe can be reduced to Newtonian physics.” “Liberal democracy and capitalism are the best political and economic systems, and everyone everywhere would be better off under them.”
However, grand narrative comes at the price of squeezing out micronarratives. Communities who won’t “get with the program” are silenced and marginalized, whatever ideas they might have been able to share blocked because of their incompatibility with the grand narrative. Facts which cannot be fit into the grand narrative are discarded. Monoculture emerges—and soon begins showing its cracks.
Over the course of the 20th century, a number of developments undermined the grand narratives of modernism. Art movements like Dadaism and cubism questioned the “rules”—the grand narratives—of representational art. Scientific developments like relativity and quantum mechanics—which both appear to be true, and yet also appear irreconcilable—cast doubt on the grand narratives of physics. Civil rights movements, economic upheavals, and the conflicts engendered by colonialism cast doubt on the grand narratives of liberalism and capitalism.
Lyotard argued that these were all symptoms of the transition from singular grand narratives to a multiplicity of micronarratives. He proposed that the next stage of humanity—the next era of art and philosophy—after modernity would be characterized by what he called paralogy, a pun of sorts: it is a prefix and a suffix with nothing in between, suggesting systems of knowledge (-logy) coexisting beside one another (para-) without regard to their content (which would be the missing stem to which the affixes would normally attach). The titular “postmodern condition” of his book—which in turn has given its name to postmodernism—is the state of transition from modernism to paralogy, a period of confusion and social upheaval as grand narratives break down and micronarratives re-emerge or compete to become grand themselves.
But what does paralogy look like? Lyotard describes it as a multiplicity of coexisting knowledge systems, each shared by a given community. This exists in any society: the knowledge system of biology is shared by the community of biologists, the knowledge system of Jewish heritage is shared by the Jewish community, and so on. Someone who is both a biologist and Jewish is in both communities, and hence familiar with both knowledge systems; they use the narrative knowledge of biology when looking at biology facts, the narrative knowledge of Judaism when they look at Judaism facts, and some combination of both when looking at the positive knowledge shared between the two systems.
This is a microcosm of paralogy. In Lyotard’s conception of the post-postmodern condition, each community has its own system of knowledge, its own narratives, and applies them within that community. Any given individual belongs to multiple communities, and so each community is linked to the other communities to which its members belong, creating a network that spans all communities in the entire culture. Ideas generated in one community spread to others through this network, allowing all members of all communities to hear and evaluate them if they wish. To Lyotard this communication is key; he regards culture as an idea-generating engine, and paralogy makes it a better one: ideas which are non-obvious or even incomprehensible in one narrative can be found by another, and spread from there.
There’s another, and in my opinion better, argument for paralogy, however: it allows for the greatest possible diversity. Personal identity is narrative in nature: ethnicity is a narrative about where we and our customs come from, sexuality a narrative about how we experience (or don’t experience) attraction, and so on. When I say that I am a cishet male atheist postpositivist feminist socialist Jew, I am announcing a variety of ways in which I organize, relate, and assign meaning to my thoughts and experiences. In a paralogous society, I am free to belong to a multiplicity of communities that share each of those narratives, and many other communities besides. For virtually any facet of identity, I can find a group where that identity is shared, a community within which to explore, discuss, and evolve that narrative—and yet there is no concern of an “echo chamber” effect, because I belong to a multitude of other communities that have their own narratives, yet include some of the same positive knowledge in their system. More importantly, people who, in our current society, have had their identities marginalized and their narratives squeezed out by the grand narrative can do the same, freely forming communities where their identities and narratives are accepted and getting their ideas onto the same paralogous network as everyone else’s.
But isn’t this just what my friend described? People moving freely between ideologies and identities as they wish, in one grand monoculture?
No, but explaining the difference will require a bit of a detour and a closer examination of how narratives, and especially grand narratives, work.
Every narrative has certain ideas, or kinds of ideas, which it trends toward or away from. A work of purely mimetic fiction (also called non-genre fiction, but that’s another grand narrative at work) will not have characters go for a journey on a starship. A conspiracy theory transforms evidence that contradicts the theory into evidence that the conspiracy is powerful enough to fake the evidence. No scientific investigation will ever conclude that a phenomenon is the work of supernatural forces.
These are all examples of narrative imperatives: the structure of a narrative can have trends regardless of the positive knowledge associated with it. The sciences, for example, seek naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena; any positive knowledge which resists such explanation must be either rejected as an error or lie, or treated as an unknown but natural phenomenon for which there is no naturalistic explanation yet. “A god did it” is not science any more than traveling at Warp 6 is mimetic fiction. This is not a criticism of the sciences; it is an essential part of what makes them science. In this case, the narrative imperative is a good thing: if you want naturalistic explanations of natural phenomena, which you presumably do if you’re doing science, you want your narrative knowledge to push you away from supernatural explanations.
Not all imperatives are so benign. In particular, some narratives have imperatives that drive them to become grand narratives; in other words, some narratives will, given the space to do so, tend toward generating the idea that the community should impose these narratives on everyone and eliminate any and all contradictory narratives. I call these grandiose narratives: narratives which are not necessarily grand narratives in any given culture, but which contain a narrative imperative to become grand narratives if possible. Some examples of grandiose narratives which are not grand narratives in our culture: scientism, the belief that the sciences are the only true knowledge system, all others are false, and which therefore tends to the conclusion that other knowledge systems should be eliminated;* evangelical Christianity, which holds that there is a moral imperative to persuade all people to become Christians; antitheism, which holds that all religions are false and should be eliminated; ethnonationalism, which insists that one and only one ethnicity dominate a culture; and (just so that this list contains one item to which I am not fundamentally opposed) Marxism, which insists on a revolution leading to a single universal economic system and philosophy shared by all.
Since the presence of a grand narrative makes paralogy impossible, grandiose narratives are a fundamental threat to paralogy. But how to deal with them?
The Paradox of Tolerance
There is a common thread among grandiose narratives: they are all intolerant. Scientism cannot abide non-scientific beliefs, and given the opportunity and power, a community which adheres to scientism must seek to eliminate those beliefs. The same holds for evangelical Christianity and non-Christian beliefs or antitheism and religious beliefs. Ethnonationalism is even worse: it cannot abide non-ethnonationalist beliefs or other ethnic identities, and so, given the opportunity and power, an ethnonationalist community must seek to eliminate not just the beliefs but the ethnicities as well, which is to say it must engage in ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Grandiose narratives are thus anathema to a paralogous society; they cannot be tolerated if the society is to exist. In his The Open Society and Its Enemies (which, it should be noted, predates The Postmodern Condition by almost 25 years and thus contains no reference to paralogy), Karl Popper coined the term “The Paradox of Tolerance” for this phenomenon. He discussed it in terms of building a free and tolerant society: a society which tolerates anything, including intolerance, will inevitably be taken over by the intolerant and therefore cease to be tolerant.
Consider a society which is almost perfectly paralogous, but there is one community which is intolerant—let’s say they’re white supremacists. As a community in a paralogous society, they are on the network and able to spread their ideas—which, remember, were generated by a white supremacist narrative. Members of this group will be members of others, that being how the network works, and so will carry their racist ideas into other communities. Not all racist ideas are obviously so; subtly racist ideas will enter the knowledge systems of other communities, making those communities racist. The mere presence of a white supremacist community makes the society as a whole more racist—not every community will be equally “infected,” and some may even stay completely free of racism, but people of color be completely accepted and free to be themselves only in those few communities, the very definition of marginalization.
Or consider an example which doesn’t depend on paralogy or even the narrative-based epistemology we’ve outlined here: imagine a society which is perfectly tolerant, except for one anti-black racist. Put them anywhere in that society, and they make things worse for black people. If they’re a school teacher, their black students suffer. If they’re a clerk at the DMV, black people applying for licenses suffer. Even if we’re lucky enough that they don’t work any job that gives them power over any black person, if they have any black coworkers, those coworkers have to suffer dealing with a racist. If the racist has any black neighbors, or runs into a black clerk at the DMV when they go for their license—if, in short, the racist has any contact with black people whatsoever—the lives of those black people are made materially worse, and thus society as a whole is demonstrably a little less tolerant of black people than everybody else. There are only three possible things society can do to deal with this: lock the racist away somewhere where they’re guaranteed never to meet or have any effect on a black person (which is intolerant of intolerance), find a way to keep black people away from the racist (which is a restriction on black people but not anyone else, and hence intolerant of black people), or find a way to make the racist more tolerant (which is, again, intolerant of intolerance.)
Of those options, the middle one makes the problem worse; only the first and third actually work to make society more tolerant. Thus, a perfectly tolerant society is impossible unless each individual person is perfectly tolerant (which seems unlikely—we have to assume that if any reasonably sized society tolerates something, somebody somewhere is going to do it). A maximally tolerant society, by contrast, is one in which the only thing not tolerated is intolerance. This is the “paradox,” though it’s not actually one if we phrase it as follows: the maximal tolerance a society can achieve is to tolerate everything except first-order intolerance, where “first-order intolerance” is defined as intolerance of something which is not itself intolerant.
Note that we can still state the parable of the world’s only racist in terms of our epistemology, though it was presented as not requiring that epistemology: the racist’s knowledge system includes a grandiose narrative imperative to make life worse for their racism’s targets. It doesn’t matter if they themselves don’t care whether the rest of society shares their intolerance or not; as long as they act on their racism, the mere existence of this intolerance tends to create a society-wide grand narrative of intolerance.
Grandiose narratives are inherently intolerant; intolerance is inherently grandiose. They are, in other words, two words for the same thing, and hence the Paradox of Tolerance is also the Paradox of Grandiosity: the maximally paralogous society is one which excludes only grandiose narratives.
Paralogy vs. Monoculture
The Paradox of Grandiosity answers the question of how paralogy differs from my friend’s monoculture idea. Consider one feature of communities in a paralogous society: openness. We can describe the openness of a community as its position on a spectrum from fully open communities (which define a member as anyone who wants to be a member) to fully closed communities (which have requirements for membership that are impossible to achieve for anyone not born a member).
We can immediately see that an ethnonationalist community is going to fully be closed: along with any other requirements, if you’re not born part of the “right” ethnicity, you can never become a member of the community. But that’s true of racial identity in general: you may or may not choose to participate in or identify with the racial community in which you were born, but you cannot join any other. You can join closely related communities (for example, joining a family through marriage), and it is possible to be born part of multiple racial communities simultaneously, but racial identity is closed.**
The sciences are partially closed communities: becoming a scientist is possible for anyone in theory, but requires extensive effort and training. At least in some forms, evangelical Christianity is completely open; you can become one just by deciding you are one. Once you have joined, the pressure of the community and strong narrative imperatives will then begin making extensive demands, but joining itself is trivially easy.
These examples should make clear: a closed community is not necessarily grandiose or vice versa. Being closed is not the same as being intolerant—but my friend’s monoculture does not allow closed communities of any kind, since they restrict the individual’s freedom to identify however they want and participate in any community they want.*** My friend’s monoculture is intolerant of closed groups which are not themselves intolerant: it is first-order intolerant.
In short: the real concession to ethnonationalism is not acknowledging that diversity exists; it is rejecting that diversity should exist.
*”Eliminated” not necessarily implying elimination by force, of course. However, eliminating a knowledge system by persuasion still means the loss of its narrative, the dissolution of the community to whom that knowledge system belonged, the marginalization of any associated identities, and the erasure of any unique ideas which that knowledge system might have generated.
**Note that ethnicity and nationality are not the same as race and therefore do not have to function the same way. Judaism, for instance, is a mostly closed identity: someone who is not Jewish can become Jewish, but only through a difficult process.
***It is out of the scope of this essay, but I know that somebody at some point is going to ask about how all of this relates to trans issues, given that TERF rhetoric often includes criticism of the idea that anyone should be able to identify however they want and participate in any community they want without exception (which is justified) along with claims that this is what trans narratives imply (which is not). My answer, in brief: The binary model of gender is a grand narrative that rejects observable facts and marginalizes people. Those people are not themselves being intolerant—nothing about being trans, intersex, or nonbinary creates a narrative imperative to prevent others from being cis—and hence the binary model of gender is first-order intolerant. TERFs and other transphobes are grandiose and intolerant, and thus the maximally paralogous society cannot permit them.