Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
It's been more than 30 years since Jean-François Lyotard closed the historical door on Modernism. It was 1979, to be exact, when Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Rumors of the death of Modernism had been swirling for years. But death comes in stages, especially when the mortally wounded is a “movement” or an “age.” Lyotard's book managed to tie all those rumors together and then package the result as “Postmodernism,” the new next thing.
Lyotard focused on the idea of narratives. Past periods, Modernism in particular, had been fond of what he called “meta-narratives,” all-inclusive narrative frameworks that explained everything, more or less. Think, for instance, of Marxism and the way that class struggle drives every other part of the story. Look at the objects around you, the way you're dressed, current politics, movements in the arts. Strip away the details, any good Marxist will tell you, and lurking beneath you will find the class struggle. That bottle of water you're drinking is, in its essence, a natural resource owned by someone who then employs laborers hiring themselves out to work at a price determined by the market. This central relationship between wage-earners and owners of the means of production determines political structures, ideas on morality, even the dynamics of the family. For the Marxist, class struggle is the meta-narrative overarching all the other stories that fit inside.
Lyotard called the new age Postmodern because he thought that such meta-narratives no longer captured the complexity of late-20th-century existence. The fragmentation of identity brought about by modernization and globalization was too profound. At best, any narrative was going to tell only a small part of the story. Meta-narratives had blown apart into an endless chaos of micro-narratives.