• Brendan Graham Dempsey

Political Metamodernism


Metamodernism is at root not a political label but an historical one. The term arose out of the periodization debates that followed the decline of postmodernism in the late twentieth century. Heuristic labels like “The Romantic Period,” “The Modernist Period,” and so forth, have always been useful for cultural historians, serving to contextualize broad trends in cultural production within a particular understanding of the time’s social matrix. When “The Postmodern Period” no longer seemed interpretively helpful in this way, it was clear that a new “structure of feeling” was afoot, and a number of attempts were made to formulate a workable framework for understanding cultural production in the period after postmodernism. Metamodernism, first prominently articulated by Dutch thinkers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, was one such framework, and has since found general recognition as the successor to postmodernism. Thus, like postmodernism (in theory), metamodernism does not advocate any particular political agenda. Rather, like postmodernism (in theory), it is a way to understand how people orient themselves toward ideological stances such as political agendas.


The dominant philosophical stance of the Postmodern Period was characterized by a moral and epistemological skepticism; consequently, its politics was characterized by a nihilistic embrace of the market as value arbiter (neoliberalism), a grievance-style politics rooted in the will to power, or apathy. Postmodernism, understood from a cultural studies perspective, was the stance that generated or at least informed these political agendas—not the political ideology or agendas themselves.



I say “postmodernism ‘in theory,’” because this distinction is rarely made in practice. Perhaps I ought to say “postmodernism ‘in cultural theory,’” since here the distinction remains significant. In common usage, however, the term “postmodernism” has become conflated with certain of its political creatures. On the Right, it is synonymous with so-called “cultural Marxism”; in the middle, “identity politics;” on the Left, “social justice.” But neoliberalism and apathy are arguably just as “postmodern” as those other agendas, and the cynical moral relativism, anti-objectivity, and will-to-power pragmatism that fueled Trumpism was no less postmodern politics in action because it informed the stance of the Right instead of the Left.


In the same way, metamodernism, properly understood, is not political in nature per se; rather, it is a way to understand how people orient themselves toward ideological stances, be they political, religious or what have you. Coming after postmodernism, the metamodern stance retains an element of the former’s skepticism, but finds a way to commit itself to ideals nonetheless. As Vermeulen and van den Akker write, “[I]f, 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…can be conceived of as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.” Idealism, even fanaticism, returns—but qualified by a meta-awareness of its position in the social discourse as, well, just another discourse (albeit a discourse that one passionately embraces). Just as postmodernism was not inherently tied to a particular political persuasion but rather referenced a stance or ethos that might be directed toward diverse political expressions arising from that stance, so metamodernism is not inherently a paradigm of the Right or Left, but can—indeed, inevitably would—inform the agendas of both.



The overt politicization of metamodernism began with the work of Hanzi Freinacht and his Metamodern Guide to Politics series, which aimed to articulate a political vision for human flourishing inspired by the Scandinavian model of social democracy. Freinacht calls metamodernism “the philosophical engine” behind his vision, while acknowledging that he is in fact expanding the basic meaning of the term beyond the more limited sense it had among cultural theorists. Nevertheless, the lines soon become blurred, and in the context of Hanzian political discourse, “metamodernism” becomes essentially synonymous with the progressive political project being espoused. So too in the work of Brent Cooper, a metamodernist intellectual and executive director of The Abs-Tract Organization (TATO), a think-tank “for absolute social philosophy and global civil society, committed to definitively solving the world’s systemic social problems through a high-level framework of ‘abstraction.’” Cooper simultaneously both expands and narrows the idea of metamodernism even further, calling it “a new cultural, political, scientific, and social movement representing a post-ideological, open source, globally responsive, paradox resolving, grand narrative.” At this point, we are clearly quite a ways away from metamodernism as an historical/cultural period after postmodernism.


The political aims of Freinacht and Cooper are progressive or Leftist in nature. In this context, certain features of the metamodern structure of feeling—its cautious optimism, its openness to engage seemingly contradictory or opposing viewpoints, its commitment to constructive action over cynical apathy, etc.—all become useful tools in the articulation of these galvanizing political grand narratives with a liberal or socialist bent.



However, it did not take long for the Right to appropriate the metamodernist paradigm as well, with various online forums and communities becoming hubs for the “metamodern right” or “meta-right.” Here, the features of metamodernism that resonate and find emphasis are different, as one might expect. For one thing, metamodernism is a paradigm that ostensibly counters and transcends postmodernism (long the boogeyman of the Right); as one might imagine, then, this makes its adoption attractive for those who lament the rise of postmodernism but who also refuse the posture of pure reactionary recoil. For conservatives who do look to the past, there is indeed in metamodernism an element of backwards-looking to be found—not just to modernism, but further back still. Something traditional is certainly to be garnered, no doubt, in the “old untrendy human concerns,” as David Foster Wallace called them, and Vermeulen and van den Akker identify a number of “returns,” such as sentimentality, Romanticism, and even myth. Metamodernists, they write, “look back…in order to perceive anew a future that was lost from sight”: a formulation many young conservatives might find tantalizing in an age when, to have any political clout, one must sound future-oriented even if one’s heart lies in the (imagined) past. Finally, for those of a more absolutist stripe, the reassertion of grand narratives would seem to make religious commitments, market-based ideologies, and (with the far-right) even racist/fascist myths and dogmas culturally living options once more.


In short, we are seeing the structure of feeling called metamodernism manifesting politically in diverse ways, and the results are not entirely surprising. They break along ancient and established lines.


For Hanzian metamodernists on the Left, the metamodern moment is full of idealistic promise; a map is presented: a grand narrative of human social flourishing promises; a liberal utopia beckons—but not of the totalitarian kind anticipated by modernists. That has failed, and rightly so; they see that clearly. Still, idealism returns—but of a supposedly pragmatic and hyper-integrating sort. An idealism of listening, of sharing, of resolution. The group tensions of postmodernism having been transcended, humanity shall come together at last and realize its full potential. A new age—Metamodernity—dawns! (or shall dawn) with all the eschatological hopes and dreams to make a Deutero-Isaiah weep. Swords shall be beat to social media shares; the commons shall rise (but not to rebellion). Peace and rationality shall reign in networked harmony, and the world will know Oslo on Earth.


Meanwhile, metamodernists on the Right read the tea leaves differently. The decadence of postmodernism is over, clearly; its skepticism, its cynicism, its moral relativism are dead. Triumphant, a new generation trumps forward. The grand narrative returns; myth speaks once more to the people. Soon, the forces of chaos, dissolution, and disorder will wither and die away. A Promethean blood pulses in those who know it. If it is fitting to have myths again, then why not myths of strength, of majesty, of dignity, of power? Why not myths of land, of soil, of communities, of peoples? Perhaps the dream of egalitarian democracy itself is but a vestige of the modern world, something that a revitalized Metamodernity might purge in favor of—what? Something more aristocratic? More hierarchical? More imperial? Something for which it is honorable to die…



To be sure, both strains are metamodern enough. For though their agendas differ, Left and Right, their stances share much in common. They are idealistic, bold, anti-cynical and anti-apathetic; totalizing visions in the grand modernist style—yet never quite so naïve as the modernists were. Both seek to address the meaning crisis of postmodernism with reconstructive agendas for human activity. Indeed, more than anything, they are both very much refutations of postmodernism, philosophically and politically, and reflect quite strongly the resurgence of modernist ideas in the contemporary zeitgeist.


SEE ALSO: After Postmodernism


www.BrendanGrahamDempsey.com

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Contact Brendan at generationofleaves@gmail.com