Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #5: Reading Frederic Jameson Against Mas’ud Zavarzadeh


In the fifth of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I address the reading of Jameson (and Jamesonian postmodernism) that seems to animate the outlier metamodernism of Vermeulen and van den Akker. I use my (re-)reading of Jameson as a means of showing that Jameson’s timeline for the evolution of postmodernism is not, in fact, much at odds with Zavarzadeh’s until we reach the late 1990s—the same period of time at which Vermeulen and van den Akker begin to diverge in their thinking from Jameson. I address, too, how the Vermeulen/van den Akker misreading of Zavarzadeh is in fact a much graver and more consequential misreading of Jameson himself, as the former has in fact substantially complicated the latter’s model of postmodernism’s evolution rather than merely parroting it. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #4: What Zavarzadean Metamodernism Is and Is Not

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“If postmodernism would come to be aligned with “neoliberalism,” Zavarzadeh in 1975 explicitly aligned metamodernism with “post-liberalism,””

In 1983, Frederic Jameson, the quintessential postmodern scholar, began writing an article for The New Left Review. The article aimed to crystallize “postmodernism” as a discrete cultural paradigm which, in Jameson’s view, had become manifest by the beginning of the 1960s at the latest. By the time Jameson began conceptualizing the ideas that would inform this 1983 article—presumably, in the late 1970s and early 1980s—postmodernism had, per Jameson, reached its “late” stage. While his seminal work on postmodernism, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, would not be published until 1991, Jameson’s 1983 article formed the basis for this latter work and his observations of American culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s its conceptual backbone.

To Jameson, both in 1983 and 1991, postmodernism constituted above all else an erasure of the line between High culture and popular culture that Modernism had fetishized. This erasure consequently put aesthetic production in America (previously restricted to the sphere of High culture) squarely in the midst of the workaday capitalist machine. Pop Art, as typified by the visual art of Andy Warhol—think of the late artist’s paintings of Campbell’s soup cans—was an exemplar of postmodernism, in this Jamesonian view.

Of course postmodern art, under Jameson’s and every other reading of the postmodern, is also infused with poststructuralist literary theory; this means that whatever its situation in the midst of popular culture, postmodern art is always, necessarily, also a “deconstructive” critique of that culture. This idea of critiquing something one is in the very midst of would be a paradox—as how could Warhol be simultaneously deconstructing and critiquing consumer culture if this very culture was the primary vehicle for his artistic expression?—if not for the importance, in postmodernism, of “dialectics.” By virtue of dialectics, which means simply an abstract positioning of opposing ideas against one another, a literal artwork like a painting can simultaneously be an abstract gesture quite apart from the artwork itself. In other words, while Warhol’s physical media often suggested he was wallowing in contemporary capitalism, the animating principles of his conceptual art suggested, more significantly, a dialectical (and thus oppositional) relationship with consumer culture. In this way Warhol could have his cake and eat it, too. (Of course, this paradox of a single artist exhibiting different physical and abstract relationships to consumer culture also enabled many misreadings of Warhol’s work over the years; to those not steeped in postmodern, e.g. neo-Marxist, dialectics, it could easily have seemed as though Warhol was merely uncritically celebrating capitalism’s “popular” culture.)

It’s for the above reason—this disconnect between physical product and conceptual motive—that postmodernism is often associated with “irony.” Understanding how artists and thinkers achieve ironic detachment from discrete phenomena goes a long way toward understanding postmodernists like Warhol. If we think of Warhol as ironically commenting on consumer culture “from within,” we can see that postmodern subgenres like “Pop Art” constituted not so much the actual embrace of consumer culture by postmodernists but rather an ironic embrace of it to entrench a dialectic with (for instance) Warhol on one end and the excesses of capitalism on the other. So when Jameson wrote in 1991 that postmodernism had erased the line between High culture and popular culture he meant, in fact, that it had both erased it and, simultaneously, re-drawn it in permanent marker.

Not so many years before Jameson began writing his crystallization of postmodernism—about six years, i.e. an eye-blink in the history of critical theory—Zavarzadeh was in Oregon attempting to determine whether a new cultural paradigm would dominate the “technetronic culture” he saw on America’s horizon. Writing in 1975, Zavarzadeh both looked back upon the literature of the 1950s and 1960s and considered how the events of the early 1970s seemed to propose the early stages of a larger “historical…and cultural phase” that would be distinct from what had preceded it. What Zavarzadeh saw, and what Jameson, several years later, would not, was that the different strains of culture and critical thought that had followed in the wake of “modernism” could not, in fact, be grouped under the single heading of “postmodernism.”

While Jameson has routinely acknowledged postmodernism and the artifacts of postmodernism as heterogeneous, he has also consistently insisted on the usefulness of “postmodernism” as a collectivizing term. Zavarzadeh never did, and still does not, share this confidence. And so it was that when Zavarzadeh wrote “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives” in 1975, he made a decision Jameson might have done well to make when he began writing his magnum opus on postmodernism six years later: he divided into multiple discrete tendencies the several cultural logics that had succeeded (i.e. were “post-”) Modernism.

For Zavarzadeh in “The Apocalyptic Fact,” the quintessential literary Modernists were James Joyce (artistically active from approximately 1915 to 1940), Virginia Woolf (1915-1945), and Faulkner (1925-1960, though he’d published nearly all his major work by the time of America’s entry into World War II, making his period of “Modernist” literary activity almost identical to Joyce’s and Woolf’s). Zavarzadeh designated as exemplars of the literary “anti-Modernist” camp—those whose literary poetics “reacted against” the Modernists—a trio of authors from the “1950s”: Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and C.P. Snow. “1950s” was, here, an evident shorthand for Zavarzadeh, as in fact all three authors enjoyed their heyday between the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, i.e. around the time Jameson considered postmodernism to have crystallized. In describing these latter authors as having “reacted against” the Modernists, Zavarzadeh seemed to echo the language Jameson would later use in describing what we now think of as “postmodernism.” Indeed, the very first page of Jameson’s 1991 book typified postmodernism as an “implacable critique” of Modernism (cf. Zavarzadeh’s “react[ing] against”). We see, then, in Zavarzadeh this timeline for the Modern and postmodern paradigms:

  • 1915-1945 (approximate): Modernism.
  • 1950-1967 (approximate): Anti-Modernism.
  • 1968-1975 (approximate): Continued ubiquity of anti-Modernism and patches of proto-“metamodernism” (the latter identified in his 1975 essay “The Apocalyptic Fact”).
  • 1976-thereafter (speculative): Further development of metamodernism as a full-blown “historical and cultural phase.”

Meanwhile, Jameson’s timeline looks like this (due in part to his redefinition of the decades-long, nineteenth-century Victorian era as “Modernist,” which Zavarzadeh would likely have demurred from, I imagine, only by terming it “proto-Modernist”):

  • 1850-1950 (approximate): Modernism.
  • 1950-1969 (approximate): Postmodernism and crystallization of postmodernism.
  • 1970-1980 (approximate): Late postmodernism.

And for comparison, here’s the twentieth century in literature as imagined by (universally acknowledged) seminal metamodern novelist David Foster Wallace (per his interviews):

  • 1915-1950 (approximate): Modernism.
  • 1950-1967 (approximate): Postmodernism.
  • 1968-1975 (approximate): Postmodernism and patches of proto-“metamodernism” (though Wallace did not use the latter term, he identified the same authors as belonging to this latter trend as did Zavarzadeh).
  • 1976-1995: Dominance of late (in his view boring and exhausting/self-exhausted) postmodernism because no one had yet followed up on the work done by the proto-metamodernists. In
  • 1985, he began the metamodern novel Infinite Jest to remedy this.

As is now widely known, Zavarzadeh also coined, in 1975, two new categories for literary output: “metamodernism” and “paramodernism.” In a nod to many Modernist scholars’ insistence that, well into the 1950s and 1960s, supposedly “postmodern” authors were in fact merely perpetuating subtle variations of the Modernist ethic, Zavarzadeh termed as “paramodernist” a slew of hard-to-categorize authors like Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov. Beckett’s “black comedy” aligns with our present understanding of postmodernist writing, though at the time he was receiving critical acclaim he was often referred to as one of the “last modernists”; Zavarzadeh’s taxonomic term “paramodernism” thus rescued Beckett (and others similarly situated, like Nabokov) from the limbo of being only debatably Modernist or postmodernist.

The most abidingly important term coined by Zavarzadeh in 1975 was, of course, “metamodernism,” though in his circumscription of its particulars we find evidence of a cultural paradigm that, as of 1975, only a handful of authors could yet claim to have explored. (This is one reason that Zavarzadeh’s analysis as much looked forward to the authors an emerging “technetronic culture” might produce as looking around in the mid-1970s to see who was already producing “metamodernist” writing.)

If postmodernism would come to be aligned with “neoliberalism,” Zavarzadeh in 1975 explicitly aligned metamodernism with “post-liberalism,” which distinction regrettably has led to some confusion (particularly for Vermeulen and van den Akker) regarding which 1970s authors Zavarzadeh saw as early metamodernists—and why. For instance, while Zavarzadeh did identify certain “metafictional” authors, like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, as metamodernists, the specific quality of their late 1960s/early 1970s work that Zavarzadeh associated with metamodernism was “a baroque over-interpretation of the ‘human condition.’” While any such baroque gesture naturally contains an element of parody, Zavarzadeh was clear that any parodic element in such works was not a parody of reality itself, but rather an implicit parody of the writing practices of other (whether Modernist or “anti-Modernist”) authors. This “inside baseball” brand of parody was not, in Zavarzadeh’s view, an attempt to set forth an alternative, e.g. neo-liberal, view of or key to reality (or, for that matter, fiction-as-genre) but rather to “demonstrate the confusing multiplicity of reality and thus the naiveté involved in attempting to reach a single synthesis of reality”—again, whether that synthesis was to be, say, Modernist-interpretive or postmodernist-Marxist (or in some other way neo-liberal). Note the use here of the word “demonstrate”—as in “perform without commentary”—whereas we find in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s analysis of Zavarzadeh a claim that the latter favored “ruminations” on (for instance) “the confusing multiplicity of reality…”

The metafiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s of which Zavarzadeh was writing offered “nothing between the lines,” to use Zavarzadeh’s own words, and in this respect blithely assigning to it the adjective “parodic”—as Vermeulen and van den Akker have done—is a misunderstanding of both its form and its function. It was, instead, a reaction to “anti-modern” (or, as we think of it now, “postmodern”) neo-liberalism, which is precisely why, for Zavarzadeh, it was “post-” and not “neo-” liberal. (Confusing, I know, but “postmodern neoliberalism” is not “metamodern postliberalism,” howsoever the prefixes may confuse us.)

David Foster Wallace, hailed by Vermeulen and van den Akker’s research project as a metamodern novelist, not only produced fiction answering in every way to Zavarzadeh’s description of metamodernist fiction—“a baroque over-interpretation of the human condition…demonstrating the confusing multiplicity of reality”—but also explicitly linked his own work to the same early metamodernists Zavarzadeh had discussed in 1975, particularly Pynchon (an author often mentioned by Wallace by name).

In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace tellingly said the following:

“The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading [in the mid-1980s], and a lot of it has to do with, “Good Lord, I’m really stretching myself, I’m really having to think, and process, and feel in ways I don’t normally feel….ten years ago, [in the mid-1980s], I was reading a lot more avant-garde stuff, and I thought it was very cool. One of my complaints right now [in the mid-1990s] is that, because I think commercial entertainment has conditioned readers to want more easy fun, I think avant-garde and art fiction have relinquished the field. Basically I don’t read much contemporary avant-garde stuff because it’s hellaciously un-fun. [By comparison] the stuff I was reading ten years ago was avant-garde stuff from like the 60s and early 70s which, as far as I can see, was the heyday of contemporary avant-garde stuff. But these days a lot of it is very academic and cloistered and basically written for critics and college teachers and PhD students and I feel a lot more strongly about that [in terms of disapproving of it] than I do TV.”

Interestingly, scholars now find in Wallace’s Infinite Jest not only the same “baroque over-interpretation of the human condition” Zavarzadeh saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g., in Wallace, ornate over-descriptions of twelve-step recovery philosophies) but also the tendencies of the “nonfiction novel” that Zavarzadeh likewise associated with “metamodern” literature. For instance, Wallace’s lengthy lists of drugs and their effects, secondary-school pedagogies and their peculiarities, and mental and physical conditions exhibited by real people (and in many cases experienced in real life by Wallace himself) “enact[ ] the zero degree of interpretation of the ‘human condition’…by means of neutral registration of the fantastic actualities” spoken of by Zavarzadeh in 1975. Just so—and asking for a moment for the reader’s indulgence—when I wrote and published a lengthy metamodern poem entitled “White Privilege” which did no more than list 600+ surprising but true facts about my life as a non-Anglo (Jewish) Caucasian, the primary reaction from readers was that what they had just read could not possibly be true. What most metamodernists understand, including Zavarzadeh and Wallace, is that one can achieve metamodern effects in literature equally through the baroque and the neutral, in part because the two are—in Zavarzadean metamodernism—one and the same.

In other words, Vermeulen and van den Akker have gravely misread Zavarzadeh’s approach to parody. Whereas in their recent essay the two cultural theorists charge Zavarzadeh with terming “parody” metamodern, in fact the scholar was quite clear in 1975 that metamodern fiction “acknowledges…an extreme situation where ‘parody’ and ‘analysis’ become equally impossible…” Moreover, if we replace “parody” and “analysis” here with the phrases “conventional poststructuralist deconstruction” and “conventional Modernist rumination and interpretation” we understand precisely how Zavarzadeh saw metamodern literature as a negotiation of and between Modernism and postmodernism. Even the quality of “sincerity” that contemporary metamodernists now align with metamodern literature was registered by Zavarzadeh via his 1975 claim that the “nonfiction novel” found in metamodernism was an “authentic reaction” to contemporary living—“authenticity” being a byword of contemporary discussions of “sincerity.” (Meanwhile, Zavarzadeh excluded from metamodern operations any vestiges of the “judgmental voice” that sometimes seeps into conventional metafiction.)

The sixth and last entry in the series can be read here: #6 Transcendence of the Dialectical in Zavarzadean Metamodernism

In Zavarzadean metamodernism, the unreality of “real things” (and vice versa) is a creative force. Fanciful but strategic North Korean propaganda redefines terms like creativity and reality, as does the work of Karl Faberge, who unites conventional painting and virtual reality:

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