One way of defining the end of history is as the moment when it becomes impossible to tell stories about humanity as a whole, what Jean-François Lyotard called “master narratives.” The source of this impossibility is the incompatibility of narrative with dialogue. While I’m telling a story, you can’t intervene. While we’re having a conversation, there is no “story.” At the end of history, dialogue is all, history nothing.
The end of history is nowhere more apparent than in Western religion. Although not long ago each religion claimed to tell the uniquely true story of the world, today such claims are considered in poor taste. To insist that my religious tradition alone lends meaning to history makes me unfit for dialogue with members of other traditions. Dialogue is conceived as transcending the particularity of religious history. But maintenance of this dialogue depends on excluding the basic fact of its own history, which is that this substitution of dialogue for history arose and is still centered in the Christian West.
In religious dialogue we refer to the origin of our beliefs and practices in specific revelations: Mohammed was told–and told us–this, Moses that. But because the dialogue cannot reflect upon itself as a historical reality in its own right, it cannot function as a Hegelian dialectic progressing toward a new synthesis. The separate histories that enter into our conversation reveal not the truth of the world to which the beliefs and practices give meaning, but only that of the beliefs and practices themselves. Although I can tell you their historical source, I cannot claim that my beliefs are “truer” or my practices “better” than yours.
This mutual tolerance emerges nonetheless in a competitive marketplace where the worse is constantly replaced by the better, the falser by the truer. Unlike the dialogue of belief, market exchange generates a historical dialectic. In its early days, the West’s economic superiority was accompanied by imperialist arrogance. The assurance that its system was destined to replace all others served to justify colonization and the acquisition of spheres of influence. Yet there arose in tandem with this arrogance a fascination with other religions “in themselves.” If today’s “multicultural” dialogue–with its denial of Western Christianity’s privileged status–began anywhere, it is with the “imperialist” founders of modern anthropology such as Tylor and Frazer. It was rather the anti-imperialist Marxists who maintained the Hegelian vision of religion as destined by the historical dialectic to transcend itself in “philosophy.”
In the imperialist age, religion was alternatively a primitive mode of thought destined to pass away and a transhistorical set of anthropological themes. The pathos of early ethnography is founded on the idea that “we” of the West are rapidly destroying the ecological conditions on which primitive societies depend. We need to engage in dialogue with these societies, yet such dialogue is not really possible. This tragic mode reaches its apogee in Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques.
Modern multiculturalism takes a different tack. In a world already wholly penetrated by the Western exchange-system, it insists that all extant cultures participate in dialogue rather than in the “master narrative” of Western triumph. In the domains of artistic and religious practice, this dialogue produces local syncretisms that in turn contribute to the variety of “Western” culture. But the ineffable triumph-narrative that haunts the postmodern enterprise continues to trivialize all other narratives. It is not that we “can no longer tell stories,” or even that we no longer believe in them; we “believe” in our own so well that we fear to hear it.
Our fear is not unjustified. The market system can progress only by making all cultural elements equally marketable. The multiculturalist who proclaims his disdain for Western “imperialism” is unknowingly the most effective agent of the penetration of non-Western cultures by Western “values,” primary among which is the meta-value that cultural phenomena should be understood as incarnating values rather than laws of uniquely correct behavior. Those who best grasp this paradox are not the golden liberals of multiculturalism and their “third-world” adjuncts but the Islamic militants who fanatically reject all commerce with the West because they understand that once the dialogue is engaged, the “West” wins by definition: “dialogue” is a Western concept, the equivalent of market exchange in the ideological sphere.
The usual understanding of the end of history is as the attainment of the final state of human organization, as Francis Fukuyama describes liberal capitalism. Fukuyama shares Hegel’s idea of the end of history as the end of the dialectic and therefore of all essential discourse. In Marxist terms, this translates into the “realm of freedom” where history ends because we have been liberated from causality; if my choices at moment B are not limited by my prior decisions at moment A, then I have no “history” and my life is a series of independent moments. And although the absolute liberation of socialism is a chimera, the market system liberates relatively by providing a constantly expanding set of options. The story of this year’s trip to France has an ever-diminishing narrative value both because nearly everyone else has already been there and because I can go nearly anywhere else next year.
The end of history is not an achieved state like death but an ever-open frontier between the historical and the posthistorical age. On the one hand, the end of history defines an opposition between winners and losers; in this respect, it is not the least but the most historical of moments. This is the tone of Fukuyama’s famous article and of his subsequent writings on the subject. But on the other hand, the end of history is also the end of the historical structure within which events are given historical meaning. Thus as soon as we say that the West has “won,” we abolish the very idea of “winning”: the world becomes just one big decentered exchange-system. This does not prevent us from creating narratives, but it undermines their pretension of being “history” rather than arbitrarily selected partial series of interactions. The complacent proclamation of the death of the Subject in Postmodern “theory” is an unconscious paean to the marketplace where outcomes are determined through interaction rather than by a central ego.
What are the implications of the “end of history” for narrative? I would not be so presumptuous as to claim world-historical status for my own increasing impatience with fiction in any form more challenging than film. Individual lives still have their constraints and their goals, their comic or tragic outcomes. But–this is the insoluble problem of the novel since Proust–the consistency of character that lends concreteness to fiction is constantly menaced by the author’s implicit assertion that all that matters in life as in art is the reader’s submission to the narrative discourse itself. Novelistic characters who once shared normal worldly goals now simply want to be “famous,” to interest us in their story; to the extent that they do not, their desires are trivialized or sentimentalized like those of ethnic characters in the movies. I think we have gone too far along the road of Mme Bovary, c’est moi! for narrative fiction to remain a mode of anthropological discovery.
The end of history, as readers of Hegel will recall, is also the end of art, religion, and even philosophy. It is the end of cultural or “humanistic” discourse, but not of discourse as such; that of science will only be encouraged by the elimination of its traditional competitor. In this light, we can understand both the finality and the relative obscurity of generative anthropology’s little bang. Originary thinking as the final mode of “theory” evacuates all the classical philosophical problems at precisely the moment in which they cease to be of interest. But better a little bang than a big whimper.