Paper addressed at Thinking in Unity Conference LMU Munich

The ecosystem is severely disrupted, the financial system is increasingly uncontrollable and the geopolitical structure has recently begun to appear as unstable as it has always been uneven. CEOs and Politicians express their ‘desire for change’ at every interview, voice a heartfelt ‘yes we can’ at each photo-op. Planners and architects increasingly replace their blueprints for environments with environmental ‘greenprints’. And new 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. History, it seems, is moving rapidly beyond its all too hastily proclaimed end. As Linda Hutcheon put it: let’s face it: the postmodern is over.

In this paper, we will seek to outline, or sketch, the contours of this emerging structure of feeling. We will pay particular attention here to the material sphere of economics, the ethical sphere of politics, and the aesthetic sphere of the arts.We will call this structure of feeling, or sensibility if you will, metamodernism.

According to the Greek-English Lexicon the prefix ‘meta’ refers to such notions as ‘with’, ‘between’, and ‘beyond’. We will use these connotations of ‘meta’ in a similar, yet not indiscriminate fashion.  For we contend that metamodernism should be situated epistemologically with modernism and postmodernism, ontologically between modernism and postmodernism,  and historically beyond modernism and postmodernism.

Some remarks, finally, on our approach. As the paper’s title, ‘Notes on metamodernism’, suggests, we intend what follows as a series of linked observations rather than a single line of thought. We seek to relate to one another a broad variety of trends and tendencies across current affairs and contemporary aesthetics that are otherwise incomprehensible (at least in terms of the postmodern vernacular), by understanding them in terms of an emergent sensibility we come to call metamodern. We do not seek to impose a predetermined system of thought on a rather particular range of cultural practices. Our description and interpretation of the metamodern sensibility is therefore essayistic rather than scientific, rhizomatic rather than linear, and open-ended instead of closed. It should be understood as an invitation for debate rather than an extending of a dogma…

It can be argued that the postmodern has been marked by a slow but steady development towards political stability and economic prosperity, at least from a western perspective. After the turmoil of the 1960s and, to a lesser extent, the 1970s and, to a much lesser extent, the 1980s, the 1990s might be described, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, as ‘a holiday from History.’ The so-called ‘peace’ brought by the steady rise of Empire and the formation of the European Union, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the so-called ‘wealth’ brought by the deregulation of the financial system and the transition to a white-collar economy, the flexibilisation of the job market and a credit-driven consumerism all seemed to confirm Fukuyama’s End of History.

These trends and tendencies might be best illustrated from the perspective of national politics and domestic policy, as these domains can be conceived as a mediating level between the global and local, the point of contact between the space of flows and the space of places, the moment of intersection between World History and personal life narratives.

Seen from this perspective, then, it can be argued that the postmodern era led, slowly but surely, to the appeasement of political oppositions and the blunting of ideological contradictions, up to the point where the differences between Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the invisible hand of the market and the clinched fist of the commune, liberals and socialists, progressives and conservatives were slowly but surely rendered invisible by political stability and economic prosperity.

Consider, for example, the continuation of Thatcher&Reagan’s Neoliberalism by Blair&Clinton’s Thirdway-ism, a development that seemed to legitimize Thatcher’s slogan that There Is No Alternative and a development that was neatly summarised by Dutchman Wim Kok (former-Union-leader-cum-Prime-Minister and ‘spiritual father’ of the Third Way) as ‘shaking off the ideological feathers’ . All was quiet on the Western front. Or, so it seemed.

To be sure, we do not wish to suggest that all postmodern tendencies are over and done with. But we do believe many of them are taking another shape, and, more importantly, a new sens, a new meaning, and direction.

History, in other words, has resumed its course. For the 2000s were haunted by the specters of immigration and multiculturalism, terrorism and populism, climate crisis and credit crunch, the failed attempt to establish a Constitution for the European Union and the Euro-crisis, the demise of American unilateralism and the rise of economies such as Brasil and Russia, India and China, the so-called BRICs.

In sum, the emergent sensibility we have come to call metamodernism must be situated within the context of a threefold “crisis”. To our minds, this triple crisis consists of a collapsing political centre, the climate crisis and the credit crunch.

The disintegration of the political center, for example, results on both a geopolitical and a national level in a multi-polar and polycentric political landscape, which forces us to restructure the political discourse and to re-position ourselves within political debates. The climate crisis, moreover, urges us to decentralize the production of alternative energy and find solutions to the waste of time, space, and energy caused by (sub)urban sprawl, and, thus, forces us to re-imagine a sustainable material landscape and a transformation of our modes of production and consumption. The credit crunch, lastly, causes severe feelings of anxiety as stock-markets plunge and expenses are cut, houses are foreclosed and people are axed on a scale unheard of since the 1930s.

The threefold crisis of a collapsing center, a changing climate and the credit crunch infuses doubt and inspires reflection about the basic assumptions of Western culture, economics and politics, as much as it inflames political debates and provokes dogmatic entrenchments. Indeed, if, simplistically put, the modern outlook vis-a`-vis idealism and ideals could be characterized as fanatic and/or naive, and the postmodern mindset as apathetic and/or skeptic, the current sensibility can be conceived of as some sort of informed naivety, pragmatic idealism or moderate fanaticism.

Looking back at the end of the decade it is easy to see that the realm of domestic politics altered accordingly, as the political centre collapsed and political contradictions resurfaced. Let me illustrate these points by means of a few examples.

In the US, recently, the election of President Obama rallied the country behind a progressive agenda of social reform, leading to bills that attempt to restructure the financial sector and to reform Health Care. Meanwhile, the Republicans have won heavily in the recent mid-term elections… thanks to a radicalized conservative wing, spearheaded by Sarah Palin, Fox News and the infamous Tea Party.

In the UK, recently, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed the first coalition since the Second World War to govern the country. Meanwhile, Labour is redirecting its course after the apparent failure of Blair’s Thirdway politics and the disastrous spell of Gordon Brown. After a dramatic race between the Milliband brothers, the natural heir to Blair’s legacy, David, lost to the favorite of Labour’s left wing, Ed, who was elected the new Party leader, and this is telling, as the result of the support of the Unions.

In the Netherlands, recently, the first minority cabinet since the Second World War got installed, headed by the first Liberal (rightwing) Prime-Minister since the First World War and made possible by the support of Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam party. Meanwhile, Labour distanced itself from their former Thirdway politics by means of a dismissive speech of Wouter Bos (still leading the party at that time) and the Unions organized the longest strike since the Great Depression.

We could go on and on and on. We could go on about the consecutive minority coalitions in Denmark, supported by the rightwing populists of The Danish People’s Party, the wave of strikes that will undoubtedly engulf Europe, the historical first seat for the extreme-right in Swedish Parliament, the need for much contested reforms concerning the climate crises and the credit crunch, the recent start of the debate concerning the multicultural society in Germany and so on so forth… But the list is intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive.

All of the above mentioned examples, however, point towards a similar political reality: the constant need to both create an re-create small majorities or large minorities and position and reposition oneself within an increasingly polarized political landscape.

In the arts too, the landscape is changing. The leading American art critic Jerry Saltz has observed the surfacing of another kind of sensibility oscillating between beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that he described as follows:

I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. It flickered into focus at the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” last year and ran through the Whitney Biennial, and I’m seeing it blossom and bear fruit at “Greater New York,” MoMA P.S. 1’s twice-a-decade extravaganza of emerging local talent. It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly self-conscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind—what Emerson called “alienated majesty.

Saltz writes exclusively about tendencies in American Art, but one can observe similar sentiments across the European continent. Only recently, the established BAK Institute in the Netherlands initiated a group exhibition that was called ‘Vectors of the Possible’. The exhibition, curator Simon Sheikh explained,

examines the notion of the horizon in art and politics and explores the ways in which art works can be said to set up certain horizons of possibility and impossibility, how art partakes in specific imaginaries, and how it can produce new ones, thus suggesting other ways of imagining the world. Counter to the post-1989 sense of resignation, [it] suggests that in the field of art, it is the horizon – as an “empty signifier”, an ideal to strive towards, and a vector of possibility – that unites…and gives…direction. The art works in this exhibition can be seen as vectors, reckoning possibility and impossibility in (un)equal measures, but always detecting and indicating ways of seeing, and of being, in the world.

And the much lauded up-and-coming Gallery Tanja Wagner in Berlin introduced its opening exhibition with the remarkably analogous words:

The works [at display] convey enthusiasm as well as irony. They play with hope and melancholy, oscilliate between knowledge and naivety, empathy and apathy, wholeness and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity, … looking for a truth without expecting to find it.

Even the applied arts, from architecture to cinema, the Internet to television, are undergoing changes. The film critic James MacDowell has noted the emergence of the so-called ‘quirky cinema’ associated with the films of Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson. MacDowell describes quirky as a recent trend in Indie cinema characterized by the attempt to restore to the cynical reality of adults a childlike naivety – as opposed to the postmodern ‘smart’ cinema of the nineties, which was typified by sarcasm and indifference.

Whatever you call these changes, these moves away from a distrust in metanarratives to a cautious belief in them, from irony to an informed naivety and sincerity, from parataxis to metaxy, from the conceptual to the affective – reconstructivist, renewalist, or indeed, to use the well chosen terminology of our host, performatist – they signal a move away from the postmodern into another kind of modernism – for, and this is important, we have not moved beyond modernity.

To date however, metamodernism appears to have found its clearest expression in an emergent neoromantic sensibility, and it is therefore this particular movement that we want to pay some more attention to here.

Now, of course, Romanticism is a notoriously pluralistic and ambiguous (and consequently uniquely frequently misinterpreted) concept. Arthur Lovejoy once noted that there are so many different, often differing definitions of the concept that we might rather speak of Romanticisms. And Isaiah Berlin, one of our time’s most adept critics of the Romantic worldview, observed that Romanticism, in short, is

unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular…and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.

If we speak about neoromanticism, then, we are not speaking about all these Romanticisms. We feel that the current neoromanticism above all evokes an attitude similar to, or perhaps even modelled after, an attitude common to early German Romanticism. For argument’s sake, we will define this attitude primarily in terms of the oscillation between the kinds of opposite poles Berlin outlined. Not entirely, but primarily. For us the Romantic attitude is about the attempt to turn the finite into the infinite, whilst recognizing that it can never be realized. As Schlegel put it, ‘that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected’. Of course, it is also specifically about Bildung, about self-realization, about Zaïs and Isis, but for our purposes, this general idea of the Romantic as oscillating between attempt and failure, or as Schlegel wrote, between ‘enthusiasm and irony’, or in Jos de Mul’s words, between a ‘modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony’, is sufficient. It is from this hesitation also that the Romantic inclination towards the tragic, the sublime and the uncanny stem, aesthetic categories lingering between projection and perception, form and the unformable, coherence and chaos, corruption and innocence.

It is somewhat surprising that we appear to be among the first academics to discern in contemporary arts a sensibility akin to this Romanticism. For in the arts, the return to the Romantic, whether as style, philosophy or attitude, has been widely professed. In 2007 Jörg Heiser, co-editor of Frieze, curated an exhibition in Vienna and Nurnberg called ‘Romantic Conceptualism’. A mere two years earlier, The Schirnhalle in Frankfurt hosted ‘Ideal Worlds: New Romanticism in Contemporary Art’. In addition, the TATE Britain has recently held a Peter Doig retrospective, the MOMA looked back at the life and work of Bas Jan Ader, while various museums have shown a renewed interest in the works of the likes of Friedrich and Bocklin. And then we have not even mentioned the multitude of galleries exposing the often-figurative paintings and photographs of twilights and full moons, ethereal cityscapes and sublime landscapes, secret societies and sects, estranged men and women and strange boys and girls. It appears that, after all those years, the parody and pastiche of Jeff Koons, the Chapmans and Damien Hirst, the ironic deconstruction of Cindy Sherman and Sarah Lucas, and the nihilist destruction of Paul McCarthy, are finally as out of place as they always pretended to be – but, in times where ‘anything goes’, hardly ever were.

This Romantic sensibility has been expressed in a wide variety of art forms and a broad diversity of styles, across media and surfaces. It has been visible in Herzog and de Meuron’s negotiations between the permanent and the temporary; in Bas Jan Ader’s questioning of Reason by the irrational; in Peter Doig’s re-appropriation of culture through nature; and in Gregory Crewdson and David Lynch’s adaptation of civilisation by the primitive. It can be perceived in Olafur Eliasson, Glen Rubsamen, Dan Attoe and Armin Boehm’s obsessions with the commonplace ethereal, in Catherine Opie’s fixation with the quotidian sublime. It can be observed in Justine Kurland, Kaye Donachie and David Thorpe’s fascination with fictitious sects, or in Darren Almond and Charles Avery’s interest for fictional elsewheres. And one can see it in the plethora of works of artists anew attempting to come to terms with their unconsciousness. What these strategies and styles have in common with one another is their use of tropes of mysticism, estrangement and alienation to signify potential alternatives; and their conscious decision to attempt in spite of those alternatives’ untenableness.

Indeed, both Ader’s attempts to unite life and death – and Reason and the miraculous, and self-determination and faith – and Rubsamen’s efforts to unify culture and nature might have been more ‘successful’ had they employed other methods and materials. Ader could have equipped himself with a better boat in order to sail the seas (In search of the miraculous, 1975); and he could have trained himself better in the art of tree climbing in order to longer hang on to branches (Broken fall, 1971). Similarly, Rubsamen could have applied strategies of simulation and/or techniques of post-production in order to make the electricity poles and lampposts (I’ve brought you a friend, 2007 look more like the magical trees and ethereal bushes they are supposed to resemble. The reason these artists haven’t opted to employ methods and materials better suited to their mission or task is that their intention is not to fulfill it, but to attempt to fulfill it in spite of its ‘unfulfillableness’. The point of Ader’s journey is precisely that he might not return from it; of his tree climbing precisely that he cannot but fall eventually. Similarly, the point of Rubsamen’s pursuit too is exactly that it cannot be fulfilled: culture and nature cannot be one and the same, nor can any one of them ever entirely overtake the other.

One should be careful however not to confuse this oscillating tension (a sort of both-neither) with some kind of postmodern in-between (a neither-nor). Indeed, both metamodernism and the postmodern turn to pluralism, irony and deconstruction in order to counter a modernist fanaticism. However, in metamodernism this pluralism and irony are utilized to counter the modern aspiration, while in postmodernism they are employed to cancel it out. That is to say, metamodern irony is intrinsically bound to desire, whereas postmodern irony is inherently tied to apathy. Consequently, the metamodern art work (or rather, at least as the metamodern art work has so far expressed itself by means of neoromanticism) redirects the modern piece by drawing attention to what it cannot present in its language, what it cannot signify in its own terms (that what is often called the sublime, the uncanny, the ethereal, the mysterious and so forth). The postmodern work deconstructs it by pointing exactly to what it presents, by exposing precisely what it signifies.

So how should we understand these trends and tendencies inflecting our material, ethical and aesthetic experience? What do they signify? And how do they relate to one another?

It has become something of a commonplace to begin discussions of the postmodern by stressing that there is no one such thing as ‘the’ postmodern. After all, ‘the’ postmodern is merely the ‘catchphrase’ for a multiplicity of contradictory tendencies, the ‘buzzword’ for a plurality of incoherent sensibilities. Indeed, the initial heralds of the postmodern, broadly considered to be Charles Jencks, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson and Ihab Hassan, each analysed a different cultural phenomenon – respectively a transformation in our material landscape; a distrust and the consequent desertion of meta-narratives; the emergence of late capitalism, the fading of historicism and the waning of affect; and a new regime in the arts. However, what these distinct phenomena share is an opposition to ‘the’ modern – to utopism, to (linear) progress, to grand narratives, to Reason, to functionalism and formal purism, and so on. These positions can most appropriately be summarized, perhaps, by Jos de Mul’s distinction between postmodern irony and modern enthusiasm.

In similar vein, the various trends and tendencies across economics, politics and the arts that we have come to call metamodern… too can be related to one another in contrast to the postmodern – and indeed, the modern. Tendencies as varied as the credit crunch and the ensuing reconstruction of the financial system, the disintegration of the political centre and the subsequent constant repositioning between ideologies and popular ideas, and the impossible artistic practices of Herzog and de Meuron, David Thorpe, and Kaye Donachie, all oscillate between a postmodern knowingness, irony and fragmentation, and a modern naivety, enthusiasm, sincerity and longing for coherence and unity.

The current sensibilities acknowledge that history’s purpose will never be fulfilled because it does not exist. Critically however, they nevertheless take towards it as if it does exist. Inspired by a modern naïveté yet informed by postmodern skepticism, the metamodern discourse consciously commits itself to an impossible possibility.

If, epistemologically, the modern and the postmodern are linked to Hegel’s ‘positive’ idealism, the metamodern aligns itself with Kant’s ‘negative’ idealism. Kant’s philosophy of history after all, can too be most appropriately summarized as ‘as-if’ thinking. As Curtis Peters explains, according to Kant, ‘we may view human history as if mankind had a life narrative which describes its self-movement toward its full rational/social potential … to view history as if it were the story of mankind’s development.’ Indeed, Kant himself adopts the as-if terminology when he writes ‘[e]ach … people, as if following some guiding thread, go toward a natural but to each of them unknown goal’. That is to say, humankind, a people, are not really going towards a natural but unknown goal, but they pretend they do, so that they progress, morally as well as politically. Metamodernism moves for the sake of moving, attempts in spite of its inevitable failure; it seeks forever for a truth that it never expects to find. If you will forgive us for the banality of the metaphor for a moment, the metamodern thus wilfully adopts a kind of donkey-and-carrot double-bind. Like a donkey it chases a carrot that it never manages to eat because it is always just beyond its reach. But precisely because it never manages to eat the carrot, it never ends its chase, setting foot in moral realms the modern donkey (having eaten its carrot elsewhere) will never encounter, entering political domains the postmodern donkey (having abandoned the chase) will never come across.

Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro, back and forth the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather it is a pendulum swinging between two, three, five, ten, innumerable, poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings towards fanaticism, gravity pulls it back towards irony; the moment its irony sways towards apathy, gravity pulls it back towards enthusiasm.

The metamodern is constituted by the tension, no, the double-bind, between a modern desire for sens, and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all. Of course, there is much more to the metamodern. We have not discussed, for instance, the increasingly important concepts of atopia and metaxy, of affect and materiality. But we nonetheless hope to have given you an indication of how we think we might be able to begin to understand what is happening all around us, whilst acknowledging that we will fail to grasp it in its entirety. And that attempt, in itself, seems to us to be pretty metamodern.

Robin van den Akker & Timotheus Vermeulen (12/11/2010). Paper addressed at Thinking in Unity Conference LMU Munich.

Image: Kaye Donachie, Early Morning Hours of the Night (2003). Courtesy Maureen Paley Gallery

There is one comment

  1. eric

    I find this a very interesting perspective on post-postmodernism, especially following on the heels of my reading Alan Kirby’s “Digimodernism” (he advances a darker view, of course). I see the tension between the dominant tendencies of postmodernism and modernism as being played out in generational terms. On the one hand, we have the now middle-aged Gen-Xers (like myself), for whom the future is everything they (we) knew it would be: dystopic, or at least not quite as promising as the recent past of their (our) childhoods. On the other hand, we have the Millennials, raised by their idealistic Boomer parents and never really having known a world without the Web and the assemblage of communication technologies milling about it–and for whom the present is bad but not permanent, and are fully aware of, and feel fully in control of, the transformative potential of said technologies. This tension will dominate the cultural landscape for the next half-century, just as the tension between ideals of the Boomers and that of their elders has dominated the last half-century (or so).

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