History, Story, and Multinarratives

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by Kate Daley-Bailey

In their latest book, Ancient and Modern Religion and Politics: Negotiating Transitive Spaces and Hybrid Identities, Carolyn M. Jones Medine and John Randolph LeBlanc explore Indian politician and psychologist Ashis Nandy’s rendering of storytelling as a modality which allows us “to rename ourselves and our realities” (39). According to this rendering, story has the potential to contest ‘history’ for it contains ‘history’ “while being open to invention” (39). While the meaning of terms such as narrative (meta and otherwise), history, story, discourse, and myth, are consistently debated in academic circles, the distinction marked here is one where ‘history’ is imagined as a type of dominant super-narrative which subsumes difference, claims to reflect cosmic or ‘natural’ structures, and names itself as the great arbiter of reality and universal truth.

‘Story’ in this estimation, can be read as a discourse that is provincial (reflecting local and individual values), recognized only within a context of one among many, and makes no claims to a decontextualized, universalized meaning. Given this taxonomy, a discourse’s status (as either ‘history’ or ‘story’) is not fixed. Should a ‘story,’ localized and limited, suddenly be heralded as the exclusive arbiter of meaning and take on all the trappings of a universal ‘history’… then the ‘story’ has become a ‘history.’ The reverse is also possible, should a discourse be recognized as merely a provincial ‘story’ masquerading as a ‘history,’ said discourse loses much of its authority and power.

Despite the drawbacks such a demotion would mean for a ‘history’ become ‘story,’ especially with recourse to overt power, its status as ‘story’ opens up a type of subversive power, the power of the underestimated. The selfsame demoted estimation the term ‘story’ has acquired today (at best, local and limited, and a worst, a false or outdated vision of reality) might prove to be its most powerful asset in challenging metanarratives. Branded as if, anything, a mere benign entity which endures in cultures for purely aesthetic or entertainment purposes… a communal or individual ‘story’ (the provincial) has the potential to disrupt ‘histories’ (the so called ‘universal’) which consistently dwarf and marginalize it.

World Religions Textbook as Metanarrative

Medine and LeBlanc note that the ability of ‘stories’ to seat conflicting and contradicting representations side by side without having to reconcile them allows, in the nomenclature of Said, for a ‘contrapuntal’ reading of ‘history’ and of the master narrative, which can undercut and extend the proscribed meanings of afore mentioned histories and master narratives. In this regard, perhaps the undoing or at least the challenge to ‘history’ and master narratives lies not entirely outside their structures but rather somewhere within them. Somewhere in the cracks, folds, and peripheries of the master narratives themselves lies the secret to their undoing, or at least the potential for the divestment of these narratives of their privileged status.

The World Religions textbook provides an excellent case in point. Despite the negative press the World Religions paradigm has received recently, and with good reason, many World Religions textbooks can be instrumental in assisting students to think critically about traditional narratives and the politics of religion, just probably not in a way envisioned by the authors of said textbooks. As noted by Steven Ramey in his article “Critiquing Borders: Teaching About Religions in a Postcolonial World”, these textbooks often present romanticized representations of religions, following traditional scripts dictated by the elite to privilege certain members of the community and ignore others. In a word, these textbooks are unwittingly political. And they offer students an excellent example of the power and limits of a metanarrative, a ‘history.’ If a chapter on the history of Buddhism is read as what Buddhism truly is… then this chapter functions as a ‘history’ of Buddhism. It has taken on the role of dominant super-narrative which subsumes difference, claims to reflect cosmic or ‘natural’ structures, and names itself as the great arbiter of reality and universal truth (for the tradition of Buddhism, that is).

Used uncritically and without conflicting ‘stories,’ this metanarrative acts as just another political tool of indoctrination. However, using the same text as a site for critical discourse alongside various ‘stories’ (think conflicting localized representations of a tradition in the form of video clips, fiction, and more specialized and contextualized examples of Buddhism as practiced all over the world) which destabilize and disrupt the metanarrative of the text, students can learn to critically engage these discourses. The ‘stories,’ the cracks, folds, and peripheries exist partially within the metanarrative (the ‘history) but they are not restricted by its boundaries. These stories have become multi-narratives… hybrid narratives which are not fully outside the context of the metanarrative and not fully inside it either.

A Bit of Both but Fully Neither

These ‘stories’ (communal and individual) touch the master narrative (in Nandy’s context this is the West) to some extent and yet they remain outside said narrative (and are thereby not subject to the rules of the hegemonic metanarrative). These ‘stories’ liminal nature and their capacity to represent conflicting vantage points without ceding to the desire to be subsumed into a universal whole (a ‘history’ or metanarrative) grant them a certain freedom, the freedom of acknowledging multiplicity, the freedom from the constant need to reify status and authority, freedoms not often afforded to master narratives. So, oddly, our tendency to valorize ‘history’ or metanarratives and to dismiss the power of ‘story’ opens up a theoretical space for multinarratives to covertly work at the edge of culture to potentially subvert or at least complexify, for better or worse, the metanarratives in play. That is, until they become metanarratives in their own right.

Katherine Daley-Bailey received her A.B. (2001) and M.A. (2004) degrees in Religion from the University of Georgia. She is currently teaching part-time at the University of Georgia. Daley-Bailey’s primary research interests are Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Theory and Methods, and Religion in Popular Culture. A regular contributor to the online magazine, Religion Nerd, she is currently working on her own column for the magazine, ‘The Sacred and the Strange,” which highlights the sometimes paradoxical nature of religious matters. In 2007, Kate co-authored a chapter titled ”Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying: Freedom in Confined Spaces” with Dr. Carolyn Jones Medine, a professor at the University of Georgia.

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