Situating Zavarzadean Metamodernism, #3: Developing a Guiding Metaphor for the Metamodern

In the third of six ruminations on recent developments in metamodernism, I address more directly a recent essay on the topic by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker—an essay that both points toward a possible resolution with Zavarzadean metamodernism, offers a way forward for metamodern discourse, and posits a new trope for the scholarly description of metamodern operations. This new trope highlights the ways in which metamodernists always run the risk of merely re-entrenching postmodern principles—perhaps the worst thing a metamodernist can do. The previous rumination in the series can be read here: #2: Metamodernism Across the Disciplines

“…this idea of being constantly pulled between poles—regardless of the inclusion that, too, one prefers one pole more than another—is “classic” postmodernism.”

In their most recent essay on metamodernism, Vermeulen and van den Akker analogize metamodernism to a man or woman who has been thrown overboard roughly equidistant from a large number of disparate and discrete islands. These islands in many instances represent opposing forces like irony and sincerity, cynicism and optimism, or knowingness and naiveté. In this view, the metamodernist’s inclination is to swim toward one island on the basis of it being (seen as) preferable to the others, even as the swimmer acknowledges the value of the islands not selected for approach. Vermeulen and van den Akker add to this metaphor for metamodern operations the idea that as the swimmer closes in on the preferred island, or perhaps at the very moment that that island has been reached, he or she is “snapped back” toward another island or islands by an unseen force—one whose very presence suggests, implicitly, the impossibility of finally choosing one island over another. (It should be noted that the metamodern swimmer of Vermeulen and van den Akker’s imagination is nearly always swimming, in the first instance, toward a neoromantic pole: e.g., sincerity, optimism, or naiveté.)

On the one hand, this idea of being constantly pulled between poles—regardless of the inclusion that, too, one prefers one pole more than another—is “classic” postmodernism. If we look within Literary Studies, for instance, we find in nearly every poststructuralist specialization evidence of a series of dialectics with a “preferred” pole. Whether it’s neo-Marxism, postcolonialism, studies of white supremacy or misogyny, or ecopoetics, a dialectic or series of dialectics is present as well as a pole toward which the postmodern scholar is themselves naturally drawn. Being drawn toward, say, the advance of the proletariat (or its contemporary equivalent) in Marxism does not mean that one can escape confronting—and indeed being in part defined by—capitalist means of production. So this “snap-back” motion so relied upon by Vermeulen and van den Akker is not only largely missing in the discrete metamodern phenomena they describe but also fails to justify their ongoing claim of “paradigm shift.”

In another sense, however, the “snap-back” metaphor is, in Literary Studies terms, a perfect circumscription of the psychic positioning and well-developed metanarrative operative in the literary work of High Modernists such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. For instance, both Pound and James Joyce overlaid atop their personal metanarratives a “mythic” method of composition that sought to resolve personal experience with an abiding yearning for universal truth. As Pound found in his Cantos, however, and later on in his radio broadcasts for the fascists of the Axis, when one seeks repeatedly to swim toward one’s particularly derived island of truth, one is constantly snapped back to the feeling—whether it is a just feeling or not is another matter—that the many different worldviews that make up common culture are finally irreconcilable. As Pound once put it in one of his later poems, he ultimately found that he could not make “cohere” his attempts at using the mythic method of composition to create a totality—at least not one that also embraced his personal metanarrative. This is why, for the final years of his life, Pound stopped speaking altogether: he had struggled to land on his preferred island so many times that continuing to proclaim himself or his values in any fashion seemed futile. And yet, for all his High Modern investigations into the mythic, Pound was never so obtuse as to be incapable of seeing the value (if, in his view, the much lesser value) of other approaches or “islands” of truth; in this respect one struggles to distinguish between Poundian subjectivity and metamodernism as Vermeulen and van den Akker would have it. Meanwhile, one struggles to find any overlap at all between Zavarzadean metamodernism and either Pound’s Modernism or Jameson’s postmodernism—on which observation there is much more discussion hereafter.

There do remain, however, some linkages between Zavarzadean and Vermeulen/van den Akker’s metamodernism. For instance, for Vermeulen and van den Akker the question of “selection” is central to metamodernism. The latter duo’s abandoned swimmer selects a given island pursuant to a private metaphysics, but is unable to stay on—or perhaps even reach—the island he has designated as his best, if not the only possible, hope of self-promulgation. In Zavarzadean metamodernism, selection plays an equally critical role and, it seems, an almost identical one. In his essay “The Apocalyptic Fact,” for instance, Zavarzadeh distinguishes “selection based on the private metaphysics of the [individual]” from the operation of metamodern reality, which is “non-selective” to the extent that, as is the case in Vermeulen and van den Akker’s conception of metamodernism, it neither entirely permits nor entirely precludes a private metaphysics. In other words, for both Zavarzadeh and Vermeulen/van den Akker the swimmer is empowered to select an island but not empowered to find there a permanent controlling metaphor and haven. Other islands always exert their influence on the swimmer, too.

If the Vermeulen/van den Akker swimmer finds—to maintain the pair’s somewhat confusing metaphor—that he or she is “rubber-banded” (as it were) away from a chosen island and toward another or others, the difference in Zavarzadeh is merely that the swimmer has arrived at his or her chosen island only to find that it offers no clearer rescue or respite than the others. Indeed, per Zavarzadeh the new island is difficult to distinguish at all except through the deployment of a highly personalized metanarrative. The engine behind the “snap-back” force identified by Vermeulen and van den Akker is the irreconcilability of other (including opposing) options with the one that the swimmer has selected; for Zavarzadeh, this irreconcilability is present but is simply the result of a map-wide conceptual indistinguishability.

The idea that a totalizing equivalence of the sort envisioned by Zavarzadeh is not just culturally operative but dominant would be horrifying to any Literary Studies scholar now researching postmodern specializations like postcolonialism, third- and subsequent-wave feminism, or ecopoetics. Meanwhile, Vermeulen and van den Akker’s notion of the inescapability of opposing positions—if indeed we think of it as an “inescapability” rather than merely an “influence”—would be no less horrifying. Neither perspective is, in this respect, discernibly postmodern. In short, while indistinguishability and irreconcilability are by no means co-equal, if they result in an identical inescapability as between opposing poles—as they seem to do in both Zavarzadean and Vermeulen/van den Akker’s philosophy—the dramatic distinctions the latter wish to draw as between themselves and the former become unsupportable.

The next entry in the series can be read here: #4: What Zavarzadean Metamodernism Is and Is Not

Metamodern personalities like Donald Trump and Rachel Dolezal call into question, in very different ways, what it means to be earnest in environments that are “always-already” cynical: