Misunderstandings and clarifications

Notes on 'Notes on Metamodernism'


It has been five years since our essay-cum-opening statement ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ was published in the Journal of aesthetics and culture, about six and a half years since it was written, and sevenish years since it was conceived late at night in a student dorm room in London, discussing, not entirely sober, the financial crisis, the rise of populism and New Romanticism with our dear friend Niels van Poecke. We’ve since finished our studies. We both left the UK, though for different countries – which means that we today collaborate via Skype, if we manage at all. We also started our academic careers, learning the ropes of teaching and marking, and focusing on the research projects that fulfill the requirements of today’s …ahum… ‘interesting’ academic ranking systems (by ‘interesting’ we mean, of course, neoliberal, cost-effective with ‘cost’ a denominator of monetary value and ‘effective’ a byword for market-competition). In between, in fits and starts, we maintained this website alongside others like Nadine Feßler, Alison Gibbons, Hila Shachar and Luke Turner, hoping to provide a platform for others to develop their own, often rather different understandings of the present structure of feeling.

Perhaps as a result of all these developments, we have not yet developed the notion of metamodernism as much as we would have liked. Sure, we have written one or two rarely read follow up articles for academic anthologies and journals, trying to develop further our conceptions of History and Utopia. We organised symposia and meetings and attended conferences where we toned our ideas in discussions with scholars that inspired us, even if, or rather especially when their theses were diametrically opposed to ours – we learned a lot from talking and listening to the likes of Rosi Braidotti, Francis Fukuyama, Laura Marx, Walter Benn Michaels, Jennifer Ashton, Nina Power, Christian Moraru, Raoul Eshelman, Camille de Toledo, and Michel Bauwens. But we have yet to write an extensive, detailed in-depth account of the metamodern structure of feeling as we see it, tracing the links between socio-economic changes and cultural tendencies, expanding on, updating or perhaps even discarding notions such as “structure of feeling”, “metaxy”, “as if” and “both-neither”: a book. As it happens, we have recently picked up our pens and set ourselves some deadlines to finally finish this book. We have no idea whether anyone is actually keen to read it, but we plan (or hope…) to write it nonetheless. A quick browse on Amazon suggests that this is how many authors approach their writing nowadays anyways.

The reason for sharing all this with you, we guess, is that over the past few years there have been some misinterpretations about what we may have intended in those first notes on metamodernism. A number of the initial 6.000 words have been taken out of context or even misrepresented to suggest we said things that we most certainly did not say. To be sure, we do not have a problem with people criticizing our argument – indeed, we ourselves see how flawed it is, how misguided in some of its assessments and incomplete (and perhaps too hasty) in its theorization; nor, obviously, do we mind people using our essay as an explicit stub or implicit inspiration to develop their own, undoubtedly much more advanced theses. We also understand that once your words are jotted down, they are no longer yours, that they can be picked up by others. But it is important to us that our research is criticized or praised for what it does actually conclude, not for what it does not. We have therefore decided to, ahead of this eternally delayed book project, address some of these issues. Many if not all of these claims have been made elsewhere by us already, in writing or on record, but we wish to restate them here in one place so as to prevent new misunderstandings.

Metamodernism, as we see, it is not a philosophy. In the same vein, it is not a movement, a programme, an aesthetic register, a visual strategy, or a literary technique or trope. To say that something is a philosophy is to suggest that it is a system of thought. This implies that it is closed, that it has boundaries. It also implies that there is a logic to it. To say that something is a movement, or indeed a programme, suggests that there is a politics to it, a belief as to how our environment should be organised. To propose any one “–ism” as an aesthetic – register, strategy or trope – is to suggest that it is a figure that can be pinned down and picked up from a text or painting and inserted elsewhere. The notion of metamodernism we have proposed is neither of these. It is not a system of thought, nor is it a movement or a trope. For us, it is a structure of feeling.

When we say that metamodernism is a structure of feeling, we intend to say, very much like Fredric Jameson and, later, David Harvey when they describe postmodernism, that it is a sensibility that is widespread enough to be called structural (or as the cultural historian Ben Cranfield recently paraphrased it in a brilliant talk about the “emergent” in art at UCL, a “feeling that structures” (2015, unpublished conference paper), yet that cannot be reduced to one particular strategy. For Jameson, for instance, postmodernism was the structure of feeling of endings – the end of History, the end of “ideology”, the end of the social, the end of art; one that was expressed in many different forms: pastiche, eclecticism, the nostalgia film, photorealism and so on. For us, metamodernism is a structure of feeling associated with the increasingly widespread sentiment that each of these debates are kickstarted, not as project perhaps as much as a projection, the premise on which new projects may be endeavoured. This structure of feeling, however, too, finds its expression in many different formal languages that have been described in detail by others: the new sincerity, quirky, freak folk, New Romanticism, new materialism, speculative realism, to name just a few. In any case, the 2000s are the defining period for the shift from postmodernism to metamodernism to occur (just as the sixties were the defining transitional period for the shift from modernism to postmodernism).

In describing metamodernism in this way, we explicitly do not say it is something we should aspire to or distance ourselves from. We do not wish to make such claims. Personally, one of us may like certain developments in the arts, whilst the other hates particular political movements. But it is entirely beside the point. Metamodernism is neither a movement, nor a manifesto. This is not to say that we do not appreciate all those who have explored the metamodern sensibility in alternative ways. We just want to make clear that these projects are not necessarily related. If you feel inspired by metamodernism as a programme, if you understand metamodernism as a way of life you wish to embrace or an aesthetics you want to adopt, we therefore need to disappoint you and should direct you to the many other accounts out there that provide just that (either under the label of metamodernism or another label).

For us metamodernism does not propose any kind of vision or utopian goal. It may describe the prevalence of such a goal in contemporary culture, but it certainly does not prescribe it. Indeed, as cultural theorists, our aim is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive (which doesn’t preclude a critical reception of contemporary developments, to be sure), and our use of the term is born of our attempts to articulate developments in aesthetics, culture, politics and economics that we consider can no longer be understood simply, i.e. exclusively, in terms of the postmodern. Ultimately, therefore, metamodernism is a term used, by us, to periodize the contemporary and think the present historically.

It is sometimes suggested that we coined the term metamodernism. If only! Indeed, nothing is further from the truth. As we have stipulated on many occasions, in writing as well as during lectures, and as a quick google browse confirms, we have certainly not been the first to use the term metamodernism. Not even the second, or third, or fourth. We wonder whether we are even in the top ten. Just as postmodernism was around in many different guises long before Jencks used it to describe developments in architecture, or Hassan and Hutcheon to describe literary tropes, or Lyotard to describe changes in philosophy, or Jameson to describe a structure of feeling associated with the sense of an end, the term metamodern has been around for quite some time. It has popped up everywhere from mathematics and physics, to Eastern spirituality, economics, and literary theory, and, we assume, its usage elsewhere, in different fields and contexts, will continue in years to come. As Seth Abramson has noted over at his blog at Huffington Post, the term was already used in the seventies by the scholar Mas’ud Zavarzadeh to describe a tendency in literature expressed above all by the metafictional novel and the nonfiction novel to “move beyond the interpretive modernist novel in which the fictionist interpreted the human condition within the framework of a comprehensive private metaphysics, towards a metamodern narrative with zero degree of interpretation”(1975: 69), one that refuses to “reduce the puzzling multiplicity of the contemporary experience into a monolithic fictive construct” (83). Though we think Zavarzadeh’s essay excellent, it evidently discusses developments within what is today generally considered (a variant of) postmodernism rather than another modernism existing alongside it. Indeed, the author’s emphasis on black humour and parody (78), a loss of faith in the “single interpretation of reality” and the abandonment of depth-models (81), as well as his insistence on authors like Robbe-Grillet, Barth, Barthelme, and Wolfe reminds us more of Jameson and Hassan than of the speculative realists.

In the studies of other literary theorists like Andre Furlani and Alexandra Dumitrescu, we would argue, metamodernism is used to signal another modernism, though here, too, we feel it is not necessarily the modernism we see emerging presently. What is interesting here, is that the adjective ‘meta’ in metamodernism is used in both instances less to indicate, as in Zavarzadeh, a rumination upon, than a situation between. In Furlani’s thorough, evocative study Postmodernism and After: Guy Davenport, he discusses the oeuvre of writer Guy Davenport in terms of complementarity and “contrasts absorbed into harmony” that aspire to transcend the postmodern disorder (2007: 158). Similarly, Dumitrescu interestingly describes metamodernism as a “budding cultural paradigm” – one with a long history but accelerated as a result of developments in science – that is characterized by holism, connectionism and integration. In both cases, we are very sympathetic to a number of the initial observations – such as for instance Dumitrescu’s spot-on reading of Blake’s poem “The Song of Experience’ as “loop-like movement that isolates the nook of dogmatism and establishes connections between patterns of thought that the priest would deem irreconcilable” (2007) – and appreciate some of the metaphors and models employed to put those observations into perspective – Furlani’s complementarity, Dumitrescu’s bootstrapping and revisionism. However, we do not necessarily, or indeed, at all, agree with the arguments they infer from these observations and models, nor with the relations of causality that are proposed.

To be sure, our disagreement is not a disagreement about the use of the term metamodernism. Each should be allowed to use the term however they feel like. Since we were late adopters, we increasingly feel we definitely have no say in this. Our dispute is about how we understand the present conjecture. This dispute comes down, we would suggest, to three, or maybe four, arguments. 1. Contrary to Furlani, we do not understand what we call metamodernism, i.e. the contemporary structure of feeling, in terms of the absorption of contrasts into wholes. Furlani may well be correct in arguing that Davenport’s work surpasses postmodernism in that it creates harmony – indeed, there is nothing to suggest otherwise – but we would argue that this harmony is not the dominant sensibility of present culture. Indeed, we would very much press the point that in its stead, the prevalent sentiment is one of irreconcilability; of the awareness that one position is irreconcilable with another in spite of one’s need to occupy them both at once – hence our emphasis in that first, flawed essay, on New Romanticism’s tragic desire.

Second, in line with this, we also disagree with Dumitrescu’s assertion that contemporary culture’s attitude’s to irreconcilability – one of the key tropes in postmodernism, to be sure – is integration, one that takes place through an appreciation of complementarity and interconnectedness. Our reaction to Dumitrescu’s claim is threefold, the first of which questions its premise, the latter two responding to the argumentation. Our problem with Dumitrescu’s premise is above all its reach. She does not convincingly show the prevalence of integrationism: the very small selection of novels, written across a very long period (over 200 years), seems to be more wishful thinking than anything else. We are equally unconvinced here by the cause for this “budding” paradigm shift: an early twentieth century discovery in physics, which marks the development from a hierarchical model of the world (“going down from complex to simple, from molecule to atom and further still until the building blocks that make up the physical reality are identified”), to a network model (“that aims to grasp the interrelations between various forms of matter organization”). On the one hand, we wonder whether advances in the realm of life sciences directly influence developments in social discourses. On the other hand, if they do, it seems these are exactly the kind of developments – non-hierarchical, relational modalities in thought – that Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze were mapping in the seventies.

Our response to Dumitrescu’s argument itself – the conceptualization of integration and of connectionism – depends on how it is read. If it is to be taken, as the first part of the essay suggests, as a holistic synthesis of opposites, we would respond as we responded to Furlani above. However, if it is to be understood in the manner the author suggests it should at the end of her essay, our response is another. At the end of her essay, Dumitrescu argues:

To use a metaphor employed by Jünger in Eumeswil: late modernity and postmodernism have revealed the inherent insularity of individuals, the intrinsic fragmentarism of any meaning one can find in an ocean of seeming meaninglessness. However, between these islands, between these fragments that should by their very broken nature be parts of something, there can be interconnections that make them all parts of a network or of several networks, connections that redeem the forgotten nature of these islands as places of meaning, wonder and delight. (Ibid)

If Dumitrescu’s argument is that contemporary culture’s attitude towards irreconcilable opposites is to interconnect them in the way a network is connected, is a captain on a ship sailing between the various islands of the archipelago, our response is that this is a spot-on description of the postmodern Lyotard proposed in The Differend (1983; translation 1988, especially pp. 130-145), which he indeed envisaged as an admiral, a “travelling judge” navigating islands, negotiating discourses. (That Dumitrescu’s captain constantly rebuilds his ship, modifying this then that, is an interesting addendum but also rather similar to Lyotard’s classification of postmodern architecture as an architecture of “minor modifications”.) As the Lyotard’s interpreter Lieven Boeve has perceptively argued: Lyotard’s focus lies with the “linkage” of a “heteregenuous plurality” of discourses (2014: 81-82), that is to say with the admiral as much as the sea. What Dumitrescu speaks about when she speaks about “interconnections”, it seems to us, she is talking about linkage; networks: the sea, the milieu. Indeed, her reference to Houellebecq, a postmodern author if there ever was one, suggests as much.

Our argument, by contrast – which to be sure we do not wish to suggest is a more accurate description of the phenomenon Dumitrescu refers to but instead a description of a rather different structure of feeling – would be that contemporary culture, as exemplified in Annabel Daou’s installation “Which Side are You on” (2013), imagines a scenario in which the ship sinks and the sailor, the judge, has to set sail for one island whilst understanding that each island has its value. For us metamodernism is this moment of radical doubt, of constantly, at times desperately, repositioning between the islands, finally choosing one. The terms we chose early on were, with a nod to our former mentor Jos de Mul’s description of Romanticism, oscillation and metaxy. Perhaps elasticism could be another way to describe it, in the sense that the captain is tied by an elastic to different islands and the further he stretches the band to one island, the more violently the pull, the swing, back to another will be – until it snaps, of course. The word on the street for this, we guess, is choice-paradox.

Most obviously, we do not, as we have already stated above, use the term metamodernism to put forth a programme, as Dumitrescu seems to suggest, a description of a paradigm masquerading the prescription of a paradise, in which “unmediated” “connections between individuals, the ability of humans to create emotional, social, and theoretical networks, and to relate across ontological levels, may prevent the race from falling into the abyss of meaninglessness” (2007). For us, metamodernism is a structure of feeling, a mood, if you will, an attitude “dependent”, as philosopher Noel Carroll (1976) has brilliantly put it, on the overall state of the organism, its level of energy, the level of resources at its disposal for coping with environmental challenges, and the degree of tension it finds itself in as a result of the ratio of its resources to its challenges”, a global, protracted sentiment pulling all “ambient detail into its orbit”, that relates to economic, political and perhaps above all ecological crises encouraging alternative modalities of thought, to the democratization of computer-technology that returns the possibility of the public sphere to collective consciousness as much as it enables unprecedented levels of surveillance, and to demographics, in particular the coming of age of generation Y or the millenials, desiring another life than the one set out for them by their parents.

The term metamodernism has been used with more and less success elsewhere as well, ranging from cultural theory in Brazil to philosophy in the low lands (the brilliant Henk Slager preceded us on our home turf!), a mindset in India and mathematics and network theory in the US. The term also has currency in economics. Most recently British literary scholars James and Seshagiri (2014) have interestingly proposed metamodernism to describe distinctly modern literary tropes in contemporary novels. In a sense, the existence of all these different and differing uses is to be expected when using such a generic prefix as meta-, which, as we have previously stated, conveys first and foremost a moment after or beyond another moment (in our particular case the moment after the postmodern moment of and within the development of western capitalist societies). It is, in fact, so generic, that in Greek the notion of postmodernism should be translated as metamodernism. Still, our usage of the prefix ‘meta-‘ is intended, too, to convey something rather more specific. We chose it in order to express an oscillatory dynamic that was, and still is, observable across the arts and in culture. For us, this dynamic should be seen as a reflection or a mediation of a social situation in which History—and its dialectics of praxis (i.e. labour vs. capital) and dialectics of reason (i.e. dominant ideas about institutions vs. the materiality of daily life)—kick-started after that relatively brief ‘pause’ of the dialectic at the End of History.

Therefore, the point we wish to make here, as we wrote in a note to our 2010 essay as well as on this website is that

Although we appear to be the first to use the term metamodernism to describe the current structure of feeling, we are not the first to use the term per se. It has been used with some frequency in literature studies in order to describe a post-modern alternative to postmodernism as presented in the works of authors as far apart as, amongst others, Blake and Guy Davenport. However, we would like to stress that our conception of metamodernism is by no means aligned to theirs, nor is it derived from them. It is in so far related to these notions that it too negotiates between the modern and the postmodern; but the function, structure, and nature of the negotiation we perceive are entirely our own and, as far as we can see, wholly unrelated to the previous perception.

The reason for our engagement here as well as these annotations is twofold: on the one hand, we want to gratefully acknowledge the history of the term, one that far precedes our use and will surely outlive it; on the other, and in relation to the above, we want to be sure to distinguish our project from many of these earlier practices employing it, especially, perhaps, those for whom ‘metamodernism’ intended a programme, in which literature or philosophy appeared to be read normatively, as a prescription for another modernism preferable to the postmodern outlook. To be sure, this is by no means to suggest that we disapprove of these prior arguments, that we want to challenge or discard their assertions – they may well be exceptionally useful in specific contexts, or even, we hope, our context; but rather that we did not conceive of metamodernism as we understand it in line with these conceptions, but rather through different theoretical frameworks (Kant’s as-if, Voegelin’s metaxy, de Mul’s and Schlegel’s oscillation) and in the tradition of other debates like Alan Kirby’s digimodernism (2009), Nicolas Bourriaud’s altermodernism (2009), Eshelman’s performatism (2000;2008) and Jorg Heiser’s romantic conceptualism (2007), as well as, more recently, Svetlana Boym and Christian Moraru’s inspiring research into off-modernism (2010) and cosmodernism (2010), respectively, and Jeffrey T. Nealon’s excellent study Post-Postmodernism or the cultural logic of just-in-time capitalism (2012). Our lineage here, we believe, is well-documented.

We have gathered that there seems to be some confusion around the relationship between metamodernism and New Romanticism. Our argument in the 2010 essay, where we explicated this relation, was not that metamodernism can be reduced to New Romanticism, nor that what is generally referred to as New Romanticism is exclusive to the metamodernist structure of feeling. What we were trying to convey by discussing metamodernism by way of New Romanticism, or New Romanticism in the context of metamodernism, was that the former, New Romanticism, was but one possible expression of the latter, metamodernism. In other words: a number of works recognized as New Romanticism exemplified the metamodern structure of feeling. All these years later, we have no difficulty in pointing out other developments observed by others that are stylistically very different from New Romanticism yet express the same structure of feeling: the return of History, not as project but as projection, a possibility: the Arab Spring, Syriza, the Indignados, Speculative realism, OOO, New Sincerity, New Normal, Quirky, Freak Folk, Post-Internet, and so on. We feel that this confusion, too, may well have been our mistake entirely, as we developed our discourse around metamodernism from earlier ideas about the return of Romanticism in culture in relation to societal developments; that is to say, we only began thinking about metamodernism as a structure of feeling because we started perceiving the returning sensibility of the Romantic. We hope to have set the record straight here.

In a very interesting essay entitled ‘Poetry and the Price of Milk’, published on NonSite.org, literary scholar Jennifer Ashton concludes with a remark on metamodernism that we both agree with but also want to nuance: “metamodernism, in this respect, is nothing if not capitalism’s fantasy of the market, one in which what we “like” can also masquerade as a politics.” (2013). In line with our contention that metamodernism is the description of a structure of feeling – and not, to state it again, a programme – we, too, would argue that it resonates with a particular moment in capitalism, namely global capitalism or what Anatole Kaletsky (2012) has called capitalism 4.0. Where we differ from Ashton is that we do not necessarily believe it always, inevitably, conforms to the interests of that capitalism; in postmodernism, too, after all, certain practices opposed the very model of capitalism to which they were related.

It is true that, thus far, we have theorised the metamodern structure of feeling in ‘western’ culture predominantly. The reason for this is not, evidently, that we feel that there isn’t anything of interest happening outside of Europe, the US and Australia. Indeed, it is obvious, both politically and in terms of arts production, that there is exceedingly much happening in countries like China, Brazil, Lebanon, Morocco, Congo, South Korea and Turkey. One might even say that the so-called crisis of the West is nothing less than a crisis of dominance, where the class bully suddenly realizes he has lost his allies and his victims no longer put up with his crap. What we speak about when we speak about (geo)political instability, after all, is that we, in the west, is the realization that we never so much appeased conflict as that we displaced it. Similarly, our current problem with capitalism is not that it shows its real face; our problem is that we, in the West, now see this face much clearer than during the postmodern years– like conflict, it was there all along, we just looked away. The reason for focusing on phenomena in Europe and the US is that the both of us are most familiar with those contexts. Assuming that these observations have currency outside of these contexts, we feel, would be arrogant at best and old-school hegemonic at worst. This is not to say that they definitely are of no help in countries like Lebanon and South Korea; just that we do not know whether they do, just as we do not know whether our observations in the arts make sense in the context of classical music, or public administration, or the natural sciences. Part of the plan putting together this website was to include voices from across various contexts and disciplines.

Ultimately, metamodernism for us, is a cultural logic, a certain dominant ideological patterning that leaves its traces across culture. Our attempt is to map, outline and analyse the outer ideological limits of what we can think and do in the 21st century. Whatever we may think of the developments we are describing – good or bad, positive or negative, or whatever – is not to the point as those are moral judgments that do not have a place in a cultural analysis, depending finally very much on your place on the political spectrum. Yet in the final instance all the developments that we are describing (from new sincerity to nationalist populism to whatever) are problematic – which is something else than good or bad, positive or negative – in the light of the massive problems we are facing in terms of inequality and climate change.


Image: Annabel Daou, Study for I’m doing research for my practice, chalk pencil on paper, 2013

There are 3 comments

  1. Paula

    If postmodern aesthetic is dead and people from West now don’t look away, they have to realize that something very fundamental in their reality was glitched and twisted to the point of alternate consciousness which other people around the world never experienced. To find where it started could be a new paradigm of a new art and they can come up with something more better than word metamodernism. And on this way to a ‘newandtrue’ reality, they will have to start slow withdrawal: maybe combine enjoyment of news about art sales to millionaires with research what is the real food and how we can get it again in west.

  2. rit

    a cyborg manifesto
    “irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, because both or all are necessary and true.”

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