Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #2: Metamodernism Across the Disciplines

In the second of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I distinguish between different disciplinary approaches to metamodernism and briefly introduce an approach endemic to Literary Studies—that of American professor Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, the man who coined the term “metamodernism” in 1975. In contrasting metamodernism to previous cultural paradigms, I insist that the failure to account metamodernism a “movement” is at the heart of an error that now threatens ongoing metamodern research. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #1: What Is Metamodernism?

“Metamodernism is, like Modernism and postmodernism, a cultural paradigm. This means that, like Modernism and postmodernism, it can be construed as a movement, a philosophy, a system of logic, a structure of feeling, and a cultural dominant that both is reflected in existing cultural activities and can be channeled into new creative endeavors.”

Much of the disconnect between Vermeulen and van den Akker and their peers in metamodern scholarship may be attributable to disciplinary pathologies. That is, Vermeulen and van den Akker, as cultural theorists, are looking at temporally elongated phenomena which can in fact exhibit discernible signs of “metaxic” oscillation. For instance, one might find a sort of oscillation in the near-simultaneous rise of the far-right Tea Party and far-left Occupy movements in America in the 2010s. The two seemed part of a push-pull dynamic that a) for a time had all America in its grip, and b) was slow enough in its movements to qualify as an “oscillation,” albeit rapid enough to signal something more contemporary than, say, the push-pull of the Cold War.

Of course, it’s not so clear of what utility the phrase “metamodernism” is if it portends merely that dialectical tensions evident in the era of postmodernism (which was also, not so coincidentally, the Cold War era) are now cycling more rapidly than before. This would be no different, and no more helpful, than observing that the dialectical struggles of Modernism were more frenetic in the years immediately following World War II than they had been in the 1850s—the decade no less an authority on “modernisms” than Frederic Jameson has declared the beginning of the Modern era. So is metamodernism merely rapid(ish)-cycle postmodernism, as Vermeulen and van den Akker seem to posit?

It’s perhaps no surprise that in recent Continental fora, Vermeulen and van den Akker have been accused, cordially and not unfairly, of offering their readers either a paramodernistic extension of modernism (inasmuch as they imply that metamodernism is a repeated thrust toward the poles of sincerity, optimism, naiveté, neo-Romanticism, and the like) or a warmed-over postmodernism (inasmuch as they imply that the push-pull dialectic inherent to their iteration of “metamodernism” suggests that it is always-already impossible to reach escape velocity from postmodernism’s irony, cynicism, knowingness, and detachment). More broadly, some have seen in Vermeulen/van den Akker’s “metamodernism” merely the same cultural steady-state—not a balance, but a hard-fought stand-still—that has always been with us. After all, such online critics opine, every ironic moment is of course infused with some sincerity, and vice versa; every moment of collective cynicism leaves more than enough daylight for a modicum of cynicism’s opposite. They wonder aloud how any of this amounts to a new cultural paradigm.

The debate over how to read metamodernism is a much more complicated one for Literary Studies scholars like Alexandra Dumitrescu, David James, Urmila Seshagiri, and myself, or even for those, like me, whose case study-oriented cultural criticism focuses first and foremost on individual artifacts of contemporary culture rather than years-long cultural trends. To the extent Vermeulen and van den Akker’s metamodernism is focused on what they perceive as an “oscillation” between opposing poles, we must note how hard it is to find even a whisper of conspicuous “oscillation” in the individual artworks Vermeulen and van den Akker have identified as metamodern. What we find, instead, are sometimes reflexive and sometimes non-reflexive juxtapositions of opposing poles—“juxtaposition” being, not coincidentally, the concept most active in metamodernism in the view of nearly every metamodernist of my acquaintance other than Vermeulen, van den Akker, and the several editors of their research project (or those who submit essays to the project in the hope of synthesizing its central claims).

Committed metamodernists are also likely to be confused by the recent announcement, by one of the editors of Notes on Metamodernism, that “everyone today is a metamodernist unless they’re out of step.” On the one hand, Vermeulen and van den Akker seemed—at least prior to their most recent essay on the topic—to have doubled down on a metaphor (oscillation, derived from Plato’s oscillatory “metaxy”) that ill-describes individual metamodern artifacts, while on the other hand those associated with their research now risk defining metamodernism out of any consequential existence whatsoever. Indeed, if everyone and everything is ever and always metamodern, then nothing and no one ever discretely is, surely. This may explain, too, why Vermeulen and van den Akker have been stuck describing their view of metamodernism in a fashion modernists term “Modernist” and postmodernists “postmodern.”


As a Literary Studies scholar myself, I suppose it’s not surprising that my own views on metamodernism stem from the writing of a fellow Literary Studies scholar who a) was the first ever to discuss the term in academic literature, and b) applied his analysis of the term first and foremost to individual authors and artworks—as Literary Studies scholars are wont to do. I therefore consider myself a “Zavarzadean metamodernist,” after the American scholar, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, who coined the term “metamodernism” in his 1975 essay “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives.” I also find myself in much agreement with the Literary Studies analysis of metamodernism offered in the 2000s by Alexandra Dumitrescu, which in my view is sympathetic with—if not directly derived from—that of Zavarzadeh. The same could be said of Andre Furlani, another Literary Studies scholar whose 1990s research into metamodernism can be readily networked with my own, Zavarzadeh’s, and Dumitrescu’s. So if the Vermeulen/van den Akker reading of the term is increasingly an outlier that is hard to cogently attach to specific artworks in the present, it may be, again, that Vermeulen and van den Akker are less interested in discussing artworks than cultural epochs. While I might argue that Literary Studies scholars researching metamodernism are every bit as invested as Vermeulen and van den Akker are with reading metamodernism as a cultural paradigm, I do think our manner of proceeding is more inductive than the deductive approach native to cultural studies. That is, the literary scholar is more apt to look at a single artwork and ask “How is this new?” and “What does this herald?”, while the cultural theorist (more like a Comp Lit scholar) looks at an enduring volume of phenomena and asks, “What happened?” and “How are all these related?” I find Cultural Studies not quite as facile when it comes to the synthesis of individual artworks, but I also concede that’s likely a disciplinary bias.


To understand some of the current disputes between and among metamodernists it is useful to review some basic features of their two paradigmatic predecessors, Modernism and postmodernism. To begin with, Modernism and postmodernism are both correctly regarded—as they are described in Wikipedia and everywhere else—as “twentieth century movements.” Both Modernism and postmodernism were in their day widely instrumentalized as artistic programs by artists of every background, genre, and aesthetic inclination. Metamodernism is, like Modernism and postmodernism, a cultural paradigm. This means that, like Modernism and postmodernism, it can be construed as a movement, a philosophy, a system of logic, a structure of feeling, and a cultural dominant that both is reflected in existing cultural activities and can be channeled (due to it being a movement, philosophy, system of logic, and structure of feeling operative in individual creators as well as cultures and subcultures) into new creative endeavors. Modernism and postmodernism, like metamodernism, also have necessarily political dimensions that are played out in spheres in which the terms Modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism are not themselves used in any conspicuous way. What Frederic Jameson wrote of postmodernism may also be true, then, of metamodernism: “Every position on postmodernism in culture—whether apologia or stigmatization—is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance…” This is the case even as/when the politics attendant upon metamodern structures are still being worked through by scholars of metamodernism.

Recently, Vermeulen and van den Akker suggested that metamodernism, unlike Modernism and postmodernism, is neither a movement nor in itself especially or uniquely ripe for programmatic treatment. Moreover, though as recently as 2010 the two men had described metamodernism as a “system of logic” as well as a structure of feeling, they now decry the former assignation and refer to metamodernism as simply a “structure of feeling.” In addition to these recent clarifications of their now widely read 2010 article on metamodernism, the two have now also addressed (or perhaps re-addressed) the usage of the term metamodernism by others. Though they acknowledge that their own employment of the term is not one of the first (or even an early) usage, they do insist, at least, that it is largely unrelated to all others of note since 1975. Some of these other usages they decry as being mere re-orientations of postmodern thought, others as possibly new modernisms that nevertheless bear no significant association to the term “metamodernism” as they discuss it.

The problem with the above analysis—indeed the larger problem with the Vermeulen/van den Akker reading of metamodernism—is that for all its reference to its own historicity (and even to specific political and ecological precursors and enablers), it is finally ahistorical. The published uses of the term by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh in the 1970s, by Moyo Okediji, Andre Furlani, and more than a dozen others in the 1990s and early 2000s, and by Alexandra Dumitrescu in the mid-2000s all share such a raft of common features that we can, while still drawing distinctions between individual perspectives, nevertheless recognize in their totality a general sense impression of metamodernism that is shared by all. By comparison, Vermeulen and van den Akker’s current approach to metamodernism as neither a movement nor a system of logic removes metamodernism, it would seem, from the post-postmodernism debate altogether—by terming as “cultural paradigm” what appears to be, instead, a phenomenon lacking paradigmatic features. This is especially so now that terms like “movement” and “system of logic” (as well as much of the language long employed to describe the instrumentalization of cultural paradigms) has been removed from the Vermeulen/van den Akker discourse. That metamodernism as they describe it is, per this article and the Continental fora referenced above, merely a new take on old-fashioned postmodern dialectics is another significant complication.

(For what it’s worth, I will say here that I think Vermeulen and van den Akker do not so much preclude the instrumentalization of metamodernism as stand in such suspicion of it that their rather hasty denial of terms like “movement” and “system of logic” is more reactive than dogmatic. As noted, these phrases are clearly applicable to metamodernism, even if what we do with them is up for debate and disagreement.)

The next entry in the series can be read here: #3: Developing a Guiding Metaphor for the Metamodern.

Metamodern musicians like Holly Herndon and Donald Glover redefine terms like “voice” and “tone.” Is Herndon’s music voice-driven or synthetic? Is Glover’s “Sober” romantic or creepy?