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After Postmodernism: 6. Metamodernism

"Pandora," Patricia Watwood



Finally, we come to metamodernism, an interpretive paradigm for post-Postmodernism expounded by cultural theorist Timotheus Vermeulen, philosopher Robin van den Akker and literary scholar Allison Gibbons.[1] Vermeulen and van den Akker’s 2010 essay in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, titled “Notes on Metamodernism”, laid the groundwork for this interpretive model, arguably the most comprehensive yet proposed. Writing nearly a decade after Linda Hutcheon first posed her challenge (to label post-Postmodernism for the 21st century), the authors can now take into their scope a variety of proposals.[2] Performatism and some of the other labels we have been considering are thus subsumed into the metamodern label. “One of the most poignant metamodern practices,” Vermeulen and van den Akker write, “is what the German theorist Raoul Eshelman has termed ‘‘performatism’’”, embracing it as constitutive of this new post-Postmodern paradigm. Along with it, they write, one can also include “movements as diverse as Remodernism, Reconstructivism, Renewalism, the New Sincerity, The New Weird Generation, Stuckism, Freak Folk, and so on. The list, indeed, of trends and movements surpassing, or attempting to surpass, the Postmodern is inexhaustive” (p. 7). Part of the contribution of metamodernism is that it attempts an explanatory model that encompasses all of these disparate yet connected movements within a single theoretical framework. What they have in common, according to Vermeulen and van den Akker, is “a typically metamodern oscillation, an unsuccessful negotiation, between two opposite poles.”

This “oscillation” (the principal metaphor they use in the essay) refers to the way this new, post-Postmodern sensibility seems to toggle back and forth between typically Postmodern ideas and attitudes (which it maintains) and more typically modern ones (which it reclaims). As they put it:

Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivete and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. ...Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm. (p. 5)

One might liken this oscillation to the way a floating LED message clock works. Those familiar with these novelty gadgets know that the seemingly stable text hovering in the air is actually the product of LED lights attached to a pendulum or metronome which is rapidly oscillating back and forth. Through this movement, something “stable” appears, held up by nothing, and which relies upon, but is not reducible to, the two extremes it shuffles between. The result is a sort of paradox: stillness in motion, unity in and through polarity, etc. So is it with metamodernism and its relationship to both Postmodern and modern attitudes. “Indeed,” the authors write,

if, simplistically put, the modern outlook vis-à-vis idealism and ideals could be characterized as fanatic and/or naive, and the postmodern mindset as apathetic and/or skeptic, the current generation’s attitude—for it is, and very much so, an attitude tied to a generation—can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism. (p. 5)

Here the work of Ihab Hassan can be helpful to us again, as his chart of Modern/Postmodern in some ways maps these antipodes/nodes between which the metamodern sensibility could be said to continually oscillate:

For obvious reasons, Hassan’s final opposition, that of Modern transcendence and Postmodern immanence, should strike us here. It would seem to suggest that the author’s post-Postmodernism, which they call metamodernism, suggests a sensibility which paradoxically unites, through continuous oscillation, the immanent and the transcendent—a return of dimensionality through a third axis: the emergent stable message out of the constitutive, extreme poles.

And indeed, Vermeulen writes elsewhere of this return. Taking Jameson’s concept of Postmodernism’s “new depthlessness” (considered earlier) as his point of departure, Vermeulen sees a Metamodern return of depth, a new kind of depth. “In philosophy and art alike,” he writes,

notions of the behind and the beyond, the beneath and the inside, have reemerged. When I was growing up, in the mid-nineties and the early 2000s, I listened to Radiohead. On ‘There, There,’ they sang, “Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” A year or so ago, while watching the television show Girls (episode 3 from the third season), I was struck by a sentence that was at once reminiscent and completely different from that line from the early 2000s. ‘Just because it’s fake, doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.’ The line from the Radiohead song that described our world as a hall of mirrors calls to mind Jameson’s understanding of depthlessness as the last stage in a particular history of a particular flattening. But what the line from Girls hints at is that, just maybe, we are seeing the first stage in another history of another kind of deepening, one whose empirical reality lies above the surface even if its performative register floats just below it: depthiness. (p. 1)

The term “depthiness” here is a nod to the “truthiness” espoused by Stephen Colbert’s ideological pundit on The Colbert Report. For Colbert’s ideologue, this sense of “truthiness” emerged not from consideration of the facts, but from the gut—something you feel, not think out. Without any of its pejorative bite, Vermeulen picks up the formulation as a helpful phrase to talk about this new sense of depth. “‘Truthiness’ expresses the production of a ‘truth’ according to emotion instead of empiricism; ‘depthiness’ articulates the creation of ‘depth’ as a performative act as opposed to an epistemological quality.”

Important to this new sense of depth (indeed, important enough that it warrants a new term to designate it) is the recognition that it is not just the old kind of depth brought back, with all of its discredited metaphysical illusions. In short, this is not a reactionary move, but a progressive step forward into new territory: depth “reinvented”:

Importantly, [metamodern] philosophers, artists, and writers, each in their own distinct way, do not resuscitate depth as much as they resurrect its spirit. They understand that the depth Jameson referred to—dialectics, psychoanalysis, existentialism—has been flattened, or hollowed out. What they create instead are personal, alternative visions of depth, visions they invite us to share. Just as the Renaissance painters developed depth-models that differed from those structuring twelfth-century painting, replacing the metaphorical beyond with the perspectival behind, many artists today conceive of depth in another sense than their twentieth century predecessors. Many contemporary thinkers and artists leave the dead corpus of depth untouched, whilst trying to reanimate its ghost.

Remodernist artists saw their task as bringing spirit back into art, but not as it was; performatist works, meanwhile, affect a return of metaphysics using postmetaphysical means; and metamodernists are burying depth even as they reanimate its ghost…

But before we get ahead of ourselves, it is important to finish with metamodernism and its repercussions in the realm of actual cultural production. For, as with remodernism and performatism, this change in sensibility is directly tied to developments in aesthetic strategies and artistic forms. Because of this shift from a Postmodern to a Metamodern structure of feeling, Vermeulen and van den Akker observe:

...[N]ew generations of artists increasingly abandon the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis. These trends and tendencies can no longer be explained in terms of the postmodern. They express a (often guarded) hopefulness and (at times feigned) sincerity that hint at another structure of feeling, intimating another discourse. (p. 2)

The authors don’t stop there, but assess these tendencies in broad cultural strokes. Analyzing trends in early 21st century cultural production, they see the emergence of a distinctly Neo-Romantic sensibility, through which “metamodernism appears to find its clearest expression” (p. 8). For them, this makes a lot of sense, since “essentially, the Romantic attitude can be defined precisely by its oscillation between…opposite poles. Romanticism is about the attempt to turn the finite into the infinite, while recognizing that it can never be realized” (p. 8).

While they acknowledge the oversimplification of such an amorphous category as Romanticism, the basic thrust of the argument holds, and they present a number of examples to make their point. Of course, the return to older kinds of aesthetic forms should strike us as no surprise at this point. It has been a mainstay in the various theoretical post-Postmodernisms we have been considering, from Remodernism and its associated movements like Kitsch and Post-Contemporary art to performatist shifts to beauty, etc. Neither should we be surprised to hear that this seeming regression is actually a form of progression, albeit in a different mode, a move from B to A’, you might say, the spiral forward to a starting-place in a different register. So Vermeulen and van den Akker:

If these artists look back at the Romantic it is neither because they simply want to laugh at it (parody) nor because they wish to cry for it (nostalgia). They look back instead in order to perceive anew a future that was lost from sight. Metamodern neoromanticism should not merely be understood as re-appropriation; it should be interpreted as re-signification: it is the re-signification of ‘‘the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar, and the finite with the semblance of the infinite’’. Indeed, it should be interpreted as Novalis, as the opening up of new lands in situ of the old one. (p. 12)

“New lands in situ of the old one” … “metaphysics using postmetaphysical means” … “to bring God back into art but not as God was before” … “words like truth, trust, spirit, all uncapitalized.” Having surveyed some of the more important theoretical paradigms that have been proposed in the last two decades for charting the post-Postmodern landscape, I would at last like to attempt some synthesis. While it is true that all of these paradigms are essentially talking about the same subject—namely, dominant trends in post-Postmodern cultural production—it is by no means a given that they should all come to similar assessments or theories about it. But indeed, that is what we find. All come to very similar conclusions about the present period, even if these conclusions are articulated in somewhat different terms, using different metaphors in different discursive contexts.

That being said, I do not mean to paper over genuine differences (and there do indeed remain interesting divergences in analysis and aim among these authors). Rather, it has been my intention to use these different accounts more like data points in a graph, whose plotting reveals a significant trend or pattern. Clearly, something new is going on, and that something has a particular thrust or trajectory of its own, to which all of these models are bearing witness. As with those theorists of the Postmodern, Lyotard, Harvey, and Jameson, one gets the sense that all of these writers are touching on a leg, a tail, a trunk. But what is the elephant here? While I’m not presuming to be capable of providing the ultimate picture—even less to label it—still, I would like to attempt some theory or model that can contextualise, frame, and unite these various theories into a greater whole. To that synopsis I now turn.


[1] Most recently in their 2017 book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism (Rowman & Littlefield). [2] Including Gilles Lipovetsky’s hypermodernism [see Hypermodern Times (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)]; Robert Samuels’ automodernism [see ‘Auto-Modernity after Postmodernism: Autonomy and Automation in Culture, Technology, and Education’, in Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected, ed. T. Mcpherson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008)], and Alan Kirby’s digimodernism (2009) [see Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture (New York/London: Continuum, 2009). These theoretical paradigms, though, turn out to be of rather limited utility, for the reasons that Vermeulen and van den Akker note:

[M]any of these conceptions—and Lipovetsky, Kirby, and Samuels’s, however useful they are for understanding recent developments, are exemplary here—appear to radicalize the postmodern rather than restructure it. They pick out and unpick what are effectively excesses of late capitalism, liberal democracy, and information and communication technologies rather than deviations from the postmodern condition. (3)

That is, these models speak to more symptomatic features and structural continuities (however exaggerated or decadent) than to real breaks with the Postmodern paradigm (which is what we are interested in). Something more fundamental is going on than what these theories posit.

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