At the end of the nineteenth century, the French writer Arthur Rimbaud urged us to be modern, nothing but modern, with a phrase that was as idiomatic as it was programmatic: “Il faut être absolument moderne” (1873). Recently, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, known for his non-conformist critique of postmodern relativism, took up the challenge to critically rethink Rimbaud’s postulate in the light of twenty-first century developments. In Muß man modern sein? (2010) he argues that being “absolutely modern” is no longer an appropriate attitude for our day and age. Instead, he pleads for a self-reflexive level of modernism. Some remarks from a metamodern point of view…
For Finkielkraut, modernist movements can be defined by the attempt to liberate the individual from the stasis of the medieval worldview and, increasingly, to emancipate the individual from transcendental signifiers. Consider, for example, such movements as diverse as the reformation, the enlightenment, various twentieth century totalitarian ideologies and poststructuralist discourses. Since the beginning of modernity – say, the humanism of Italian renaissance – being modern has been not so much a well-defined collection of statements but a wide-ranging series of fights. Modernism, says Finkielkraut, has thus always been related to the rhetoric of war. But why still being modern when there is nothing left to fight for? Or, rather,when the fight is in lack of an opponent?
According to Finkielkraut, it is Jean Paul Sartre who is the most representative advocate of such a warlike but groundless modernity in the second half of the twentieth century. By criticizing Sartre’s notion of engaged literature, Finkielkraut shows that hypermodernisation leads to the dangerous reduction of art to a political statement and, thus, levels the differences between poetic and non-poetic writing. The result is an egalitarian, relativistic concept of art. Literary modernism, here, neglects its own roots, ignores what modernity once initiated: the liberty to create art for art’s sake and freedom from utilitarian purposes.
The same critique Finkielkraut turns against Barthes’ poststructuralist notion of the death of the author and its free-roaming intertextuality. According to Finkielkraut, Barthes’ attempt – which must be seen as one of so many attempts of being “absolutely modern” – to liberate the sign and emancipate the reader has been, and still is, a risky experiment. For, ultimately, it leads to the loss of both sign and meaning as heuristic concepts for the understanding of art. For what is there left to say about a work of art if the reader, any reader, becomes the author of a text in the process of reading? And how can we still conceive of a text on the basis of its poetic structure and its status of fiction?
To reiterate, Finkielkraut criticizes both Sartre and Barthes for violating modernist aesthetic principles by being modern, absolutely modern, when no longer necessary. Art, he insists, must be separated from its political, historical or social context; art is an autopoietic system. According to Finkielkraut, art does not want, say or promote anything out of its own range. But within this range, art is independent and claims timeless validity, only limited by borders raised up by art itself. Arguably, this concept of art has been, and still is, one of the most powerful consequences of modernization.
Finkielkraut finishes his essay by defining a new opposition (and relation) between the modern and the non-modern. For him, the counterpart to modernity is not the classical, as is commonly supposed, but the tragic. The tragic is the attitude of somebody who used to be modern, after he recognizes the loss his own modernity caused. In a Nietzschean way, the absence of sense, difference and order causes the feeling of loss, disorientation and isolation and raises up the romantic question whether this loss can once be undone. To put it into a chronological order: the modern struggle against order, form and convention causes a postmodern trauma about the loss of security and orientation.
According to Finkielkraut, this is how Roland Barthes, in the last years of his life, turned from being modern into being tragic. Finkielkraut starts his essay by quoting an entry in Barthes, diary dating from 1978: “Suddenly, it appeared indifferent to me, that I am no longer modern.” Remarkably, Barthes, once the most influential decision maker on all matters modernist, here suddenly refuses to be modern – and without feeling any regrets.
It is a daring thesis Finkielkraut offers – hard to prove, hard to negate. But if we do follow Finkielkraut, and perceive Sartre and Barthes, more or less, as examplary of the nature of modernism, his argumentation might be helpful to understand what could be meant by metamodernism. For Finkielkraut’s notion of modernism must be simultaneously conceived of as an oscillation between a struggle against order and a regret at its loss and situated beyond both positions, where it aligns with the tragic.
My suggestion is the following: Let us call Finkielkraut’s self-reflective level of modernism a ‘metamodern’ perspective. From this metamodernist point of view, modernism appears as an enclosed entity which can be surveyed, described and understood as a whole (in spite the fact that modernism and postmodernism always denied the possibility of epistemological holism). Metamodernism, then, does not outline the condition of what chronologically comes “after” modernism or, even, “after” post-modernism. Metamodernism then is, among others and in my view, a form of participating observation, which shares, cannot but share, the fundamental postulates of modernity, yet reconciles them tragically.