Published on December 2nd, 2013 |
by Mark Bou Mansour
Has the End of History Ended? Baudrillard, Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother – Pt. 1
On December 1st, 1991, roughly 92% of Ukrainian voters approved a referendum for independence from the Soviet Union. The vote effectively signaled the final few weeks of the Soviet Union’s existence, of the Cold War, and as some would argue, of history itself.
Things got a little steamy last week when we got our meta-physics on and talked about the experience of time in relation to nationalism through the ideas of Benedict Anderson. We made the point that the experience of time had changed so that ideas of historical progress could not hold today. But what does that mean really? In this week’s two-part blog we’re going to get dramatic and talk about the end of history, what that implies for political ideologies, and how we live out our lives today accordingly. We’re also going to ask whether we’ve moved beyond the end of history 24 years after its proclamation, and we’re going to do that by ‘studying’ Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother. Warning, there will be spoilers.
Probably the most wide-spread understanding of ‘the end of history’ has been put forward by Francis Fukuyama who, writing in the final stages of the Soviet Union in 1989, depicted history as an evolutionary competition between ideologies. In 1992 he elaborated on his ideas in his book The End of History and the Last Man, arguing that with the end of the Cold War the ideological competition had culminated, and so history had ended, with the triumph of Western liberal democracy. Fukuyama held western liberal democracy to be the final form of human government and the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution.
Just as you can’t talk about the end of history without mentioning Fukuyama, you can’t talk about the end of history in a really substantial way without getting into post-modernism. Post-modernism is best explained as an ambiguous blanket term used to describe movements or stand-points in art, philosophy, literature, architecture and academia which emphasize skepticism to the assumed certainty of objective or scientific knowledge’s capacity to adequately explain reality. Post-modernism holds particular interpretation to be a better method of understanding reality than universal truth. This is because post-modernism holds that there isn’t a single reality, but several socially-constructed realities. Or put differently, post-modernism believes that we can never know what reality is, we can only construct interpretations of it and those interpretations come to serve as our realities. Consequentially, all forms of knowledge are interpretations which map and produce said realities, and so all are equally valid. True to its name-sake, post-modernism is a reaction to modernism – a movement that believed in objective truth, human universals, totality of knowledge, and inevitable progress through the advancement of reason and the natural sciences.
Post-modernists are pretty much the hipsters of the philosophical world –they won’t accept being labelled, they are so not like one another, they create not by producing something new but by referring to and reusing something previously created in a new way, they’re reading some 17th century argosy captain’s log about shipping cargo along the Spanish coast which is so relevant to today’s media representation of the Euro and which you’ve probably never heard about. You hate on them but deep down you understand them because you know you’re really one of them.
One of the most widespread definitions of post-modernism was put forth by French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard in The Post-Modern Condition: A Report of Knowledge where he states that the postmodern, in extreme simplification, is an “incredulity towards meta-narratives”. Like a true hipster, Lyotard later on renounced this book as “horrible” and as one of his worst books, but that hasn’t stopped it from being widely held as an authority on the subject matter –just like you still listen to “Video Game” even though that friend that introduced you to it boils with Lana Del Rey-rage whenever you do.
A meta-narrative “is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” (Stephens, 1998). It is a story about stories, a comprehensive theory which makes sense of and gives meaning to our realities. Importantly, metanarratives anticipate or promise a transcendental ending or a completion of a purpose or idea. Communism, and it’s prophecy of an end to human alienation via the redistribution of the means of production, is an example of a metanarrative. As is the free market doctrine which holds that the invisible hand regulates the economy so that all who work hard will materially prosper without bias. At the heart of modernity is the Enlightenment metanarrative which holds that rational thought and scientific reasoning would result in social, political and ethical progress for all. It is belief in these metanarratives, argues Lyotard, that has ceased to exist under the post-modern condition.
More specifically, the post-modern condition, Lyotard states, is the skepticism to the totalizing nature of metanarratives and their grounding in universal truths. People no longer accept that metanarratives can represent us all; we are aware of diversity, celebrate our differences, and seek our own meanings. Lyotard insists that people do not agree on what is real, or what is really happening. We all have our own perspectives and stories. Looking more closely at the metanarratives we mentioned above, we find recurring in them a utopian ending, or a teleology. Hence with disbelief in metanarratives comes disbelief in teleology, or the notion that a thing or action inherently tends to its definite and destined end.
Jean Baudrillard echoes Lyotard’s stance towards teleology strongly when he argues that we have reached the end of history. French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard has put forth a much different, and much more intriguing, understanding of the end of history. Holding a post-modern position towards metanarratives, Baudrillard doesn’t argue that a metanarrative such as the one depicted by Fukuyama has culminated, but that with the collapse of metanarratives the idea of history itself has come to an end. Because notions of history, like Fukuyama’s, are so often actually metanarratives of progress, emancipation, and resolution, they cannot hold up to the incredulity of the post-modern age. With the end of belief in the notion of history, the belief in the notion of an inherent culmination of history, of an ending, has come to an end. Hence, the end of history for Baudrillard is the end of ‘ends’. To Baudrillard, the end of the Cold War was not caused by an ideological triumph but by the end of belief in the utopian visions put forth by the Left and Right. Baudrillard goes beyond Lyotard and argues that although belief in a universal endpoint of history which would resolve all conflicts no longer holds, these notions of forward progress and universality are still used to legitimize political action and conflict. With high-speed electronic communications and global communication networks, Baudrillard argues, the exposing of the end as an illusion was inevitable. With this understanding of post-modernism –disbelief in metanarratives, and so disbelief in teleological ends – we can cue the funky bass music.
It’s no news that Seinfeld has been widely hailed as the post-modern sit-com. It is the show about nothing. This can’t be emphasized enough. There aren’t any major plots being developed throughout the seasons: Jerry and Elaine don’t end up together, George doesn’t resolve his scheming ways by finding a secure job, and Kramer –well, Kramer. The show is just about miscommunications, everyday occurrences, and inconsequential interactions comically blown out of proportion. Unlike Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or Full House, the show doesn’t employ any metanarratives about romantic love, coming of age, the American dream or family values. The show exemplifies the post-modern condition: nothing is culminated, transcended, or totalized. In fact, the final episode of the series ends with Jerry and George in a jail cell talking about George’s shirt buttons. The conversation is the same conversation they had in the opening scene to the series. George even asks if they had that conversation before. This playfully highlights the influences of Nietzsche’s thought on post-modernism, emphasizing the show as an eternal recurrence of meaningless events.
Now, if you do a quick google search with the keywords ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘post-modernism’ you’ll find several articles and blogs arguing that the show is very post-modern. Based on our understanding, however, it should be quite clear why How I Met Your Mother does not represent the post-modern condition at all. The whole show is premised on the metanarratives of romantic love, the family, and the prosperous career. That being said, as some have argued, the show does exhibits some traits of a post-modern world; Marshall is the bread-winner but is feminine, Barney is a corporate success but is immature and plays with nerf guns in the office, Robin wants to be in a relationship but doesn’t want children. The show does undermine certain metanarratives about gender roles and social norms. But this play on stereotypes isn’t enough to suggest the post-modern condition is prevalent. Actually, in certain episodes Marshall asserts his masculinity, Robin confesses her wish to have children, and Barney is a constant reminder of society’s objectification of women.
Neither completely traditional nor satisfactorily post-modern, what we find in How I Met You Mother is an interplay between metanarratives and post-modern skepticism. The most striking example of this interplay is the relationship between Barney and Robin. We’re going to look closely at this relationship tomorrow in part two of this blog, as well as at how Ted ‘lives in the moment’, how the contemporary condition is captured by How I Met Your Mother, and how all this makes it possible to claim that the end of history has ended.
Stephens, John (1998). Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children’s Literature.
Food for Thought:
Brief part-by-part summary of Lyotard’s The Post-Modern Condition
What the !@#$ is Post-Modernism?
Major works by Jean-François Lyotard:
The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
The Differend: Phrases in Dispute
Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime
Major Works by Jean Baudrillard:
Simulacra and Simulation
The Gulf War Did Not Take Place
The Illusion of the End
Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.